The New Orleans Collection – Newvelle Records NVN # 0001-0004 – Four 180 gm vinyl issues – 2020
Irma Thomas – Love is the Foundation – NVN #0001 – *****
Little Freddie King – Goin’ Upstairs – NVN #0002 – ****
Jon Cleary – So Swell – NVN #0003 – ****
Ellis & Jason Marsalis – For All We Know – NVN #0004 – ****1/2
New Orleans, affectionately known as NOLA, has long been a hotbed of jazz, rhythm and blues, and funk genres for nearly two centuries. During the early 1800s, African slaves would congregate in Congo Square, on Sundays, to honor their native land rhythms, and begin to explore French Creole and Spanish influences of the area. Ragtime, country blues, and Dixieland jazz took its roots in the Bayou.
The boutique vinyl label, Newvelle Records, has recently honored some of the best living NOLA artists in a four LP set of gorgeous clear vinyl 180 gm issues. Newvelle covers a lot of ground here with the Soul Queen of New Orleans, Irma Thomas; as well as funk master keyboard artist, Jon Cleary; octogenarian blues master, Little Freddie King; and the iconic pianist, Ellis Marsalis, playing with his vibist, son, Jason, in Ellis’ final recording, done just six weeks prior to his death from COVID.
It’s a treasure chest of musical delights, all housed in typical pristine gate fold packaging. Label co-owner, Elan Mehler, plays piano on some of the tracks as well. The acoustics benefit from the intimate setting of the Esplanade Studios, formerly the 3rdPresbyterian Church in the Treme neighborhood.
In my opinion, the Irma Thomas LP is the masterpiece of this set. It checks all the boxes! It’s Irma’s first recording in over ten years. The song selection is made up of primarily ballads that touch the heart strings- of love lost, and the heart break that it brings. The production is first rate with overdubbed background vocals, and a brass section that helps reach soul classic dimensions. Thomas’ voice remains vibrant, and benefits from a lifetime experience in the music business. She pours her heart into each song, and her backing band adds warmth, bringing such comfort. It would fit right in with the best of Stax, Motown, and other iconic labels from the 50s and 60s. It’s that good!
There is not a weak track here, but here are some of the highlights:
“My Love Is” has a haunting vibe with the lyric, “my love is an ocean roar.” Kyle Roussel provides a great piano solo, and the three man brass section is spot on with fills. Stephen Daly’s guitar deserves mention, as well. Brook Benton’s “I Don’t Know” is vintage soul. Chuck Willis” “It’s Too Late” is a heart felt ballad, with horns to die for. At age 79, Irma can still deliver the goods.
Love lost is the refrain of “Picture on the Wall.” Daly’s searing guitar aids Irma as she emotes, “Does it have to be there, still hanging on the wall..” Irma does two JJ Cale tracks, “Don’t Go to Strangers (Call on Me)” and “Crying Eyes.” The pedal steel guitar on “Strangers” rivals the JJ Cale version.
“Love is the Foundation” features local legend Alfred “Uganda” Roberts on congas, and the horns and background singers help Thomas pour on the emotion. The closer, “Our Day Will Come,” made famous by Ruby and The Romantics, has dreamy background vocals, and a pedal steel guitar accompaniment that will bring a smile.
Simply said, this is a marvelous release…
Listening to Little Freddie King’s “Goin Upstairs” will bring on an apt comparison to John Lee Hooker, with whom King toured many decades ago. Now 80 years old, and a cousin of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Freddie (whose legal name is Fread Eugene Martin), is the real deal, an artist who blends country blues with a boogie vibe. His album is comprised of all originals(except for Hooker’s title track), either written by King, or in conjunction with the session’s drummer, “Wacko” Wade Wright.
The slide guitar of Stephen Daly and harmonica of Robert Louis diTullio greatly help, giving a jump start to those tracks in which they appear. King can bring a trance like groove similar to Hooker, most evident on “Bywater Crawl.” Typical of country blues lyrics, there is a lot of sad stories to tell, as evidenced by tracks such as “Bad News,” “Mean Little Woman” “Can’t Do Nothin’ Baby,” and “I Used to be Down.” It takes full life experience to share the blues, and Little Freddie King has blues cred to spare…
Jon Cleary hails from rural England, but you wouldn’t know it from his drawl, which brings to mind, Dr. John. He picked up the NOLA bug from his uncle who spent time in New Orleans, and brought back 45’s to Jon. Cleary idolized famous Crescent City pianists like Professor Longhair, and boogie woogie legend, James Booker. Cleary came to New Orleans in the 1970s, and is now a local legend, who deserves wider acclaim. His new album, So Sweet, is a great introduction to his talents.
Jon makes NOLA proud on lots of goodies, such as “I Call it Pretty Music (But the Old Folks Call It the Blues). On “Just Because” he channels both Dr. John, and Fats Domino. It’s done in waltz time, with swirling piano lines. “Second Line on Monday” honors the NOLA tradition of a musical funeral with dancing, to help the deceased go out in style.
James Rivers on tenor sax, is a welcome addition on several tracks, adding a horn to spice up a tune. On Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s closing track, “We’re No Exception” Cleary adds classical piano flourishes that bring on a “Liberace” comparison (in a good way..).
The closing album in this set, Ellis and Jason Marsalis’ For All We Know, was recorded less than two months before Ellis’ passing due to COVID. He was a New Orleans legend, who fathered sons who have gone on to greatly exceed their father’s fame. Ellis was content to mostly remain in New Orleans, and had a weekly gig at the Snug Harbor club.
At age 85, he explains, in the liner notes, that he remembers a time that local musicians had to buy albums to begin to learn new jazz idioms as they came up, such as bop, listening to Dizzy, Bird, Miles, and others. His “touch” on the piano, especially on ballads, brings to mind fellow artists like Hank Jones, who used space to caress a melody, keeping listeners enraptured savoring each chorus. It’s a bittersweet experience listening to Ellis play on a mix of standards and originals. His son, Jason, on vibes, provides an opportunity to “communicate,” from Dad to son and back.
Ellis does tributes to Modern Jazz Quartet members John Lewis and Milt Jackson on “Remembering John” and “A Groove for Mags.” I especially dug “E’s Knowledge” and “E’s Sound,” both sensitive, and an opportunity to hear a deeply reflective artist. On “Discipline Meets the Family,” Ellis’ daughter, Marley, adds percussion and an accompanied piano. “Orchid Blues” is sublime, and highlights the synchronicity between father and son. Ellis’ passing is a deep loss for the jazz community.
The New Orleans Collection would make a special Christmas present for fans of boogie woogie, soul, blues, and mainstream jazz, all coming out of a most special city, New Orleans…
Artists and Tracklists:
Irma Thomas – Love is the Foundation- NVN #0001:
Irma Thomas – vocals; Johnny Vidacovich – drums; Alfred “Uganda” Roberts – congas; Kyle Roussel – piano, Wurlitzer, B3 organ; Stephen Daly – Electric and pedal steel guitar; Paul Defiglia – electric and upright bass.
Additional musicians: Peggy Prine, Sierra Green, and Kyshona Armstrong- background vocals; Andrew Baham (trumpet), Roderick Paulin (saxophone), Terrance Taplin (trombone)
Side A: My Love Is, I Don’t Know, It’s Too Late, Picture on the Wall, Perfidia
Side B: So Long, Don’t Go to Strangers, Love is the Foundation, Crying Eyes, Second Chance, Our Day
Little Freddie King – Goin Upstairs – NVN #0002
Little Freddie King – vocals, electric and acoustic guitar; “Wackie” Wade Wright – vocals, drums and tambourine; Stephen Daly – 2ndguitar, slide guitar; Paul Defiglia – bass
Additional musicians – Robert Louis diTullio, Jr. – harmonica; Elan Mehler -piano; Robert Snow – bass on “Going Upstairs”
Side A: Bywater Crawl, Pocket Full of Money; Going Up the Mountain, Bad News, I Used to Be Down, Coming Home to Jesus
Side B: Bus Station, Standing at Your Door, Can’t Do Nothing Baby, Mean Little Woman, Going Upstairs (live)
Jon Cleary – So Swell – NVN #0003
Jon Cleary – Vocals, piano, B3 organ, percussion; James Singleton – upright bass; Johnny Vidacovich – drums; James Rivers – saxophone
Side A: Swanee River Boogie, Two Wrongs, I Call it Pretty Music, Just Because, So Swell When You’re Well,
Second Line on Monday
Side B: We’re No Exception, I Get the Blues When It Rains, Lottie Mo, Pony Boy, Tuburculucus and The Sinus Blues, Since I Don’t Have You
Ellis and Jason Marsalis – For All We Know – NVN #0004
Ellis Marsalis – piano; Jason Marsalis – vibraphone and percussion; Marley Marsalis – piano and percussion on “Discipline Meets the Family”
Side A: E’s Knowledge, Remembering John, For All We Know, Magnolia Triangle, My Funny Valentine/ Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen
Side B: A Groove for Bags, E’s Sound, Discipline Meets the Family, Beautiful Ladies, Orchid Blues
More Information at the Newvelle Website: