By John Wigley

The humid roll of New Orleans piano music has jemmied its way into the hit parade recently as Hugh Laurie has parlayed the global success of limping medical curmudgeon House into a recording deal and the chance to record the blues he has loved all his life. The records he has made are plush and heartfelt offerings; smothered with the finest of the session world playing with elegant fire but they are really Xeroxes of Professor Longhair in a pretty frame and the cause of New Orleans piano would have been better served by selling CDs of himself just saying ‘for the love of God, buy a Tom McDermott recording and do it now’ over and over again.

BamboulaAnd that recording should really be Bamboula, a compilation overseen by the pointy bearded wizard Van Dyke Parks. It contains works from his previous five albums plus one new tune and is quite grin inducingly brilliant. At first I couldn’t quite figure why. It dashes along with a lightness and unerring consistency of tone-but that’s not it. His songs are beautifully recorded, with space and air- but that isn’t it either. It took me until the accordion led ‘Musette in A Minor’ until I got it: it’s all about where he puts himself. Tom McDermott is blessed with that thing, a thing his piano shares with Ray Charles’ voice and Jimi’s guitar, the ability to put himself in places that bend the rhythms and melodies around him, creating new sounds, feelings and harmonies. On occasion, the pull and stretch seems almost too much-but never is. It is astonishing. He also has what my jazz loving dad would have called ‘The Ella Thing.’ All through this album, he is performing feats of extreme technical skill, but you never hear the cogs turning, never see the beads of sweat on his brow. Virtuosity can deaden but not when allied to a man joyously hammering out the music he loves, loves to his bones. 

And so to the tunes. Scott Joplin’s ‘The Chrysanthemum’ is rendered with a Latin rhythm and a funky interplay with his co-players. ‘Opulence’ has McDermott showing the classically derived side of his playing and is decorated with some soprano sax that brought to my mind the wrought iron Gothic of New Orleans architecture (though I recognize I might be on my own in that). My personal best is ‘Irresistível,’ a rag-time styled duel with his long time clarinetist collaborator, Evan Christopher. All 16 tracks seem to show how his music is woven from a diverse group of influences into a new funky cloth, then tilts everything so one of those glistening old threads catches the light. 

Tom McDermott, harnessing the energy of the past to make his steps spring as he marches onward: sensational.

Bamboula is released by Minky Records

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