by Constance Tucker
There is something distinctly different about New Orleans, the history and the soulfulness that exudes from its streets. When an artist comes from that music scene there always seems to be a kind of gritty depth that is indescribable, yet you can hear it in the grooves of the music.
Continuing in the legacy of great New Orleans pianists from the Storyville era of Jelly Roll Morton, which for many of you who don’t know what that is; Storyville was the red-light district of New Orleans, Louisiana, from 1897 to 1917. It was established by municipal ordinance under the New Orleans City Council, to regulate prostitution and drugs. Sidney Story, a city alderman, wrote guidelines and legislation to control prostitution within the city, to his Ninth-Ward neighbor and Rhythm and Blues Legend Antoine “Fats” Domino, to the New Orleans Stride pianists such as James Booker & Dr. John, to jazz patriarch and modern jazz master Ellis Marsalis to pianist and vocalist Harry Connick, Jr. Matt Lemmler is a New Orleans Jazz Piano Professor, Steinway Artist and musical director for The New Orleans Jazz Revival Band.
His previous recordings include: his NOLAJazzRevival Band Portraits of Wonder, a tribute to the music of Stevie Wonder, The Music of New Orleans, a tribute to his hometown, and UBUNTU, a collection of originally arranged church hymns, American spirituals, and classic 70’s pop songs. His latest body of work Love pays homage to some of his childhood icons, Billy Joel, John Lennon/Paul McCartney and Lionel Richie. Also included in this wonderfully inspired album is Southern Songs & Sonatas (bonus disc). Which is a live performance celebrating the Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s 10th Anniversary. This stemmed from a commission that Lemmler was hired to compose and arrange that inspired Ogden’s permanent art collection.
Centrically you can hear a lot of influence by Billy Joel, and that is reflected in some of the song choices that feature three Billy Joel classic’s “And So It Goes,” which begins with solo piano, and if only for a moment you can almost hear Joel being channeled by Lemmler, until the instrumentation comes in with a heavy slice of organ and guitar in a very N’awlins way; the tune is given a soulful treatment. Lemmler’s voice has an honesty about it. Its easy to see why Joel speaks to him, you can hear that same honesty coming through his performances, especially on tunes like “She’s/He’s Got a Way,” and “Lullabye (Goodnight, my angel). There are other tunes that speak out like the smartly arranged Lennon/McCartney’s “In My Life” though given a respectful treatment musically, Lemmler has arranged the tune featuring a powerfully moving approach, with Lemmler front and center with his strong piano presence, commanding the melody and laying down its many layers of musicality. At the midway point, Lemmler gets into a heavy groove as guitarist Shane Theriot lays down a meaningful solo that gets right to the marrow of the tune. What is refreshingly heartfelt about Lemmler’s approach is you can tell he has worn these tunes in performance, digging into the meaning and essence of each tune to come out the other side with original performances.
There are many sides to Lemmler, on the bonus disc Southern Songs and Sonatas, it’s a combination of spirituals and originals. The tune that stood out for me was “Animal Funk Party,” a jazz tune that is filled with energy and righteous playing. Lemmler has that stride piano heavy hand that works so well, with a heavy left hand, that digs into the tunes rhythm, while his right hand eloquently colorizes under Rex Gregory’s soprano saxophone. Not sure the relation, but Michael Lemmler gets into the mix with keyboard synth, his lines quickly traverse the tune, adding an excitement to the overall sound. The hook in this tune if powerful and lingers in your ear long after the tune concludes.
Overall, you can hear the influence and sound of New Orleans throughout the album, its soulful siren rings true and the performances, and song choices reflect the diverse musical heritage that New Orleans has to offer, but that being said; this is a decidedly jazz offering with soul and pop sensibilities giving it an accessible sound for any style of listener.