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Tim Laughlin: Bourbon Street in the Yucat

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A Mardi Gras parade in the nucleus of the Mayan culture? Were we hallucinating? Not really, since the people of Mérida, capital of the state of Yucatán had the fortune of seeing two concerts by a traditional New Orleans jazz quartet led by clarinetist Tim Laughlin, which included pianist Tom McDermott, double-bassist Bradford Truby and drummer Ronnie Magri.

Tim Laughlin was born and raised in New Orleans, where he still lives and works, and the music of his quartet was a heartfelt tribute to his recently devastated city. The history of such concerts could make for a novel: Tim Laughlin (pronounced: Lock-lin) and his band started touring around Europe and South America since the end of the summer, and in the midst of their South American presentations they were contacted by the State Department of the United States and informed that they could not go back to their hometown of New Orleans due to the desolation caused by hurricane Katrina. They were also offered to continue their tour in México and the subsequent concerts they gave in said country were also fund-raisers for the hurricane relief efforts.

Laughlin was a warm, eloquent person to talk to. At one point in his second concert, after having discussed the issue with him, he paid public tribute to the early jazz clarinet masters Lorenzo Tio Sr. and Lorenzo Tio Jr., who taught clarinet lessons to Jimmie Noone, Barney Bigard and Omer Simeon, among others. The Tio family can be traced back to the Yucatán region (and certain parts of Spain), and Laughlin expressed onstage that Latino people should be more recognized for their contributions to the origins of jazz. Such embrace of Latino culture was warmly greeted by the audience, who corresponded with generous in-kind and cash donations for the hurricane relief.

Laughlin's latest CD is this year's Live in Germany, featuring Jack Maheu on clarinet, Tom Fischer on clarinet and tenor sax, John Royen on piano, Matt Perrine on bass and sousaphone, as well as Hal Smith and Ronnie Magri on drums. The following interview took place after a master class to Yucatecan jazz musicians as well as backstage before Laughlin's final concert in Mérida.

All About Jazz: We discussed earlier about your band having more of a swing kind of sound [than a traditional New Orleans sound], and that you grew up listening to swing, so could you explain more about how swing music influenced your sound?

Tim Laughlin: Well, the reason why I am more of a swing player is because that's where my ears went when I first listened to Benny Goodman and Pete Fountain; they were swing players, "sweeter players. I guess that's closer to my personality, and that has a lot to do with the way you play...Those were my first influences, Benny and Pete, so what I try to do is to combine elements of the [New Orleans] traditional style with elements of the swing style, and the clarinet is known for being both, both traditional and swing, so it's really easy to lay down something that people can accept. So I think that's the main reason why.

AAJ: And what made you pick up the clarinet?

TL: I think I started playing the clarinet because it's so beautiful, I mean...I just fell in love with the sound of the clarinet before I even started playing it. A friend of mine who lived down the street used to invite me over to hear him play; he was a "reader, he wouldn't play jazz but he would read tunes like "Bill Bailey, won't you please come home. And I was really impressed by the sound of the instrument, the range, the three octaves, and he showed me how to play [the embouchure], and how to play the notes.

So my mother finally got me a clarinet when I was nine and I started taking lessons at the music store, with a guy named Bill Bourgeois, who played with many of the early great jazz players... I didn't know this until I saw his name in a book, you know, like: "hey, that's my teacher! So when I started playing the clarinet I had a smoother start because I already knew how to play, so that helped me. I accelerated a little better and actually felt like I wanted to play the instrument.

AAJ: At what point did you begin to listen to jazz?

TL: About the same time. I heard Pete Fountain on the radio and that kind of spoke to me, right there. I remember exactly where I was when I heard it: it was like a Sunday morning, my dad was reading the paper and I heard the song, I asked him who it was, and he said: "That's Pete Fountain, so they gave me my first album, with that song on it...

AAJ: How old were you?

TL: I was nine. And it was Pete's Mardi Gras album, and it was all Mardi Gras standards. And it was done in a way, it was such a good production, because he had Paul Barbarin on drums, and then all these guys in the studio...it was sort of an arranged album, but it swung, and that's the most important thing. And it's still my favorite album, you know, I can just put it on any time of the year and it feels like it's Mardi Gras.

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