Matt Lemmler paints a story on his new album, <I>The Music of New Orleans</i>, with old standbys. They prove to be a fitting tribute to his hometown.
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Portraits of Wonder, 2001
The Music of New Orleans, 2007
Matt Lemmler paints a story on his new album, The Music of New Orleans, with old standbys: What a Wonderful World; Hello, Dolly; and Bye Bye Blackbird. While some jazz musicians may not be fond of playing these standards, they are a fitting tribute to the city.
The jazz pianist was born and raised in New Orleans' Ninth Ward, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The city's traditional songs no longer sounded like clichÃ©s to Lemmler after the tremendous loss.
"I missed the musicians I played with and the music I grew up with," Lemmler explains. "I had four generations of family living in the Ninth Ward. None of that is there anymore, but those songs are part of who I am and made me the musician that I am."
Lemmler evacuated New Orleans two days before Katrina hit, ending up with friends in The Woodlands. Two weeks later he was asked to perform at Tommy's Seafood Steakhouse in west Houston, which was featuring New Orleans musicians in the weeks after Katrina.
"I hadn't played music in two weeks. I hadn't been near a piano. It was pretty amazing; playing music again made me feel like a person again."
Lemmler has since become the music director at Tommy's, performing at the club nightly and bringing in musicians.
"I had just been hired for a position at the University of New Orleans as a jazz piano professor when Katrina hit. That fall semester I taught history of jazz piano online. January came, and Tom (Tollett, the restaurant's owner) asked me to be in charge of the music at Tommy's, so I had to decide whether I was going to go back to New Orleans and assume my position or stay here."
A leave of absence from the university allowed Lemmler to explore Houston and new opportunities.
"It bought me some time to see if Tom was serious about his club. Being asked to turn a club into the best jazz club in the city, that's like a dream come true."
Lemmler chose Houston as his new home.
"It's just too painful for me to go back. I don't know if I'll ever go back," he says.
The Music of New Orleans was recorded in one day at saxophonist David Caceres' house. Caceres performs on the album, along with drummer Joe Ferreira, bassist Mark Brooks, Houston vocalists Kim Prevost and Diane Landry and New Orleans singer Kimberley Longstreth.
"We came to the house that morning, and I didn't have a concept, but once we figured out what we were going to do we recorded it live that day. We didn't rehearse. We didn't talk about it, we just did it."
Lemmler hopes the record will help Tommy's become a successful jazz club, thus encouraging other restaurant owners to take a chance on live music.
"Music is the first thing that club and restaurant owners drop when they're looking at costs," Lemmler says. "A lot of great New Orleans musicians have left Houston because the music scene here isn't as fruitful as what they were used to.
"The HSPVA (High School for the Performing and Visual Arts) kids aren't staying in Houston, they're going on the road. These huge restaurant chains can afford the salaries that the musicians make and music always enhances any place; my goal is to get these musicians to stay here and be able to work here."
-- Sara Cress | May 9, 2007