Still only in her mid-thirties, Zurich-based German alto saxophonist/composer Nicole Johänntgen has been performing and tirelessly exploring music for over twenty years. With half a dozen recordings as leader under her belt, Johänntgen turns to New Orleans for inspiration on Henry
. Named after her father, who used to play trombone in lieu of an early morning alarm clock for the young Johänntgen, the songs were written during a six-month sojourn in New York and recorded in the Crescent City. The Big Apple's energy transposes itself on the traditional Nawlins template, resulting in a vibrant and spirited set of originals.
It all begins conventionally enough on the title track, with drummer Paul Thibodeaux
's infectious second line rhythms, Steven Glenn's pulsating sousaphone grooves and melodic unison lines between Johänntgen and trombonist Jon Ramm forging an upbeat, mellifluous path. The group soon takes an abrupt left turn, however, with saxophone and trombone peeling this way and that in free flight, spurred by Thibodeaux's looser dynamics, while Glenn plays the anchor role.
Ramm and Johänntgen dovetail beautifully on "Oh Yes My Friend," a slow-churning dirge laced with the blues that follows a course as sure as the Mississippi. The contrast between New Orleans parade rhythmsmostly embedded in Glenn's sousaphone pulseand a more contemporary rhythmic compass underpins the lively "Nola," which will appeal to fans of Arthur Blythe
's Night Song
(Clarity Records, 1997). Mantra-like motifs and oscillating rhythmic patterns dictate "Slowly," a slow-burner of almost hymnal origin that increases in intensity while maintaining a constant tempo.
Sousaphone and drums star on "The Kids from New Orleans"; this breezy, danceable celebration morphs briefly into a lament before Thibodeaux reactivates the party, as trombone and saxophone trade back and forth with passionate intent. Greater introspection colors "They Missed Love," an impressionistic lament where stuttering rhythms and gently wailing melodiesframed by a sombre headare the blues by another name. "Take the Steam Train," a lively vignette that fades a little too quickly, sees the quartet gather collective steam before pulling the plug abruptly, just when you'd love to hear it all kicking off. That it leaves you wanting more is a decent summation of the CD as a whole.
It's no small feat that Johänntgen's elegant compositions will likely satisfy traditionalists and modernists alike. Steeped in Louisiana traditions, her roots-based music nevertheless filters more contemporary influences to engaging effect. Whether immersed in meditative blues vein or whether stoking the party fires, there's intensity and emotional weight in the quartet's every step.
A vibrant, satisfying effort from Johänntgen that subtly reimagines New Orleans tradition. And it would make a great wake-up call to boot.