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Unexpected Moments in New Orleans with Tom McDermott

Wade Luquet BY

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Tom McDermott
New Orleans, LA
July 2009

I love unexpected moments in New Orleans. The best thing about these moments is that they happen so often. New Orleans is often called "the biggest small town on earth." You just never know who you are going to meet or what you are going to see or hear, and that's exactly what happened on a recent balmy July night.

Stopping in Donna's on Rampart Street for a regular Sunday night jam, the place was unusually quiet. It seems that through a miscommunication, the band did not show up. While this would normally be a disappointment, this is New Orleans—the birthplace of spontaneity and improvisation. As Donna Sims herself calmly said, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." And she made some great lemonade that particular night when pianist extraordinaire Tom McDermott walked in the door just to say hello to his friend Donna. After a short side conversation, she was able to coax McDermott to the piano for an impromptu short set.

McDermott is a pianist's pianist. A thin man with a mop of light brown hair that alone gives him the appearance of a genius, McDermott is a player, composer, teacher, and student of the piano. Ask any musician in town and they'll tell you two things about McDermott: he is brilliant and a really nice guy. He has a versatile repertoire that includes jazz, ragtime, Brazilian choro, French Baroque, classical, and just about every style in between. He has studied the roots of New Orleans music, and has an extensive discography to show for it.

Born in St. Louis, McDermott began listening to Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton as a young child and fell in love with the genre and the piano. He moved to New Orleans in 1984 to play the World's Fair and has since become one of the city's best known and most sought after players. This past New Year's, McDermott received national exposure when he played an hour long program at Donna's with clarinetist Evan Christopher, drummer Shannon Powell, and bassist Matt Perrine on National Public Radio's New Year's Eve program.

On this July 4th weekend, McDermott chose to start off with the patriotic "Stars and Stripes Forever" with a stride ragtime flavor. He then took the audience to Spain with "Leyenda" by Abeniz. Here, he showed amazing dexterity and speed in his playing while never losing the Spanish tinge. McDermott likes to have fun with old tunes such as his modern version of the "Maple Leaf Rag," which he played to rousing applause. His take of this often heard rag was fresh, peppy, yet totally recognizable. Other McDermottized songs can be heard on his many YouTube videos.

McDermott was joined by saxophonist Martin Krusche, and they performed "On Green Dolphin Street," where he was able to show his ability with modern jazz. Next, he then turned to Krusche and muttered, "Let's just play blues," a simple idea turned simply amazing by McDermott's playing. He has an uncanny ability to hone in on what his partner is playing and imitate the sound on the fly, giving the performance an echoing effect or, at times, a call and response feel.

A highlight of the evening occurred when singer Rhonda Richmond took the stage with her deep sultry voice and sang "Summertime," "Autumn Leaves," and "Exactly Like You." Richmond is a Jackson, Mississippi native who recently moved to the city and has been touring as the opening act for Cassandra Wilson. She brought a sense of class to the evening with her renditions of these classic jazz tunes. McDermott again showed his ability as an accompanist with beautiful chord voicings and solos.

The set broke up around eleven-thirty, and it was time to head for a quick stop at Fritzel's on Bourbon Street. It seems that McDermott's night was not over yet either—he soon walked in and was quickly brought to the stage. Here, he had a full band that included Tim Laughlin on clarinet and Matt Perrine on bass. Now he was able to shine with the full force of some of New Orleans' best jazz talent behind him. He did not disappoint as he played two songs including Professor Longhair's "Mardi Gras in New Orleans," where he was able to demonstrate his rolling piano style.

McDermott's recordings show the same whimsical flavor as his live concerts. His release New Orleans Duets (Rabadash Records, 2009) is an impressive work that includes 21 duets including tunes with some of the city's top talents such as Evan Christopher, Topsy Chapman, Tim Laughlin and Harry Shearer (yes, that Harry Shearer). The record also includes an interesting sampling remix of Louis Armstrong, and he even added piano to a song Jelly Roll Morton sang acappella on the 1939 Library of Congress recordings.

It is just these unexpected moments in jazz that make New Orleans a special place. But that's New Orleans—the biggest small town on earth. It's a place where musicians aren't just on stage, but are everywhere. Musicians who are very approachable, and a part of the fabric of life in the city. This was truly one of those unexpected New Orleans nights.

Photo Credit
Courtesy of WWOZ Radio

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