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Five drummers sitting around talking. That’s the heart — the master shot sequence — of director Martin Shore’s new documentary about New Orleans music, the second in his Take Me to the River series. The film will have a weeklong run at The Broad Theater in New Orleans beginning April 22, and then open at theaters nationwide. The soundtrack, out on Petaluma Records April 1, will be released on CD and a deluxe two-LP set with a large-format, 60-page book.
Shore fell in love with New Orleans 40 years ago as a young drummer on tour with Bo Diddley’s band. Now a celebrated filmmaker, he gathered the above-mentioned drummers — Shannon Powell, Herlin Riley, Terence Higgins, Alvin Ford Jr. and Stanton Moore — at the Music Shed recording studio to reveal an essential truth. “Drummers are the secret sauce in all New Orleans music,” he says over the phone from his San Francisco home.
Through those five drummers, who span three generations and several styles of music, Shore displays how the city’s musical traditions bleed across decades and genres. Plus, these guys know how to punctuate a point with a punchline. (“These rhythms,” Riley says at one point, “are older than black pepper.”) Playing tambourines and cowbells, they break into “Li’l Liza Jane,” a traditional song nearly everyone in New Orleans knows; we sense how it feels for close friends to share common roots. Taking turns at a trap set, each demonstrates his personal take on tradition — Powell, with the graceful shimmy of traditional jazz; Riley, with modern-jazz and church-music inflections; Higgins, Ford and Moore with varying degrees of jazz, funk and hip-hop.
Like Shore’s previous film, Take Me to the River: Memphis, here he builds a complex narrative about a place around a series of all-star recording sessions. Such a strategy would seem contrived were it not for the entertaining rapport between these musicians, whose careers and families overlap, and Shore’s graceful dips into history drawn from each player’s personal story. “Memphis was a linear story about American music,” Shore says. “New Orleans is a circular story of how world music was created from many different strands. The theme is like an onion, with layers to peel away. The first is that New Orleans is a great cultural jewel, deserving our attention and support. The next is this amazing way that generations pass on this legacy while keeping it fresh. Another is this version of collaboration, by musicians at the highest level, filled with respect and love.”
All of which comes across in a recording session pairing Irma Thomas, the 81-year-old “Soul Queen of New Orleans” with 49-year-old R&B star Ledisi. First, in an excerpt from American Bandstand taped 60 years ago, Thomas recalls singing in church as a little girl. Cut to 2016 at the Music Shed. In between takes of “Wish Someone Would Care,” which Thomas first recorded in 1964, she encourages Ledisi to “belt some gospelish stuff in there if you feel it, because I hear you going there. I’m giving the mantle to you.” Similarly touching is a scene pairing Dr. John, in one of the last sessions before his death, and Davell Crawford, at two pianos for “Jock-a-Mo,” which was written and first performed by James “Sugar Boy” Crawford, Davell’s grandfather. “They took me,” Davell says of his mentors, including Dr. John. “I had no choice but to be theirs.”
At one point in Shore’s film, the New Breed Brass Band leaves the studio and takes to the streets, as they would for a second-line parade. After all, that’s where much of New Orleans culture happens. Shore then creates a montage of vintage and recent parade and jazz funeral footage as New Orleans musicians reflect on this tradition; here, the commentators aren’t talking heads, they’re talking from personal experience. Singer Aaron Neville recalls his childhood — “running to the drums” whenever a brass band hit the street. Blues man Deacon John Moore describes the “undulations and gyrations of the hips and buttocks” as parades roll by. Rebirth Brass Band snare drummer Keith Frazier explains how parades “uplift the people.” Rapper and producer Mannie Fresh mimics how “your head bobs to the bass drum,” filling up with beats.
Shore’s film is dotted with New Orleans musical royalty — the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Neville Brothers, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison and bassist George Porter Jr., among others — as well as musicians drawn to the city for its culture — PJ Morton, Ani DiFranco and Snoop Dogg, who refers to New Orleans as “a safe haven for love.”
“We respect our ancestors more than any place in the United States,” Ledisi says in one scene. “We don’t want to lose the story.” Films like this help ensure that we won’t. - Larry Blumenfeld