Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A tribute to “the Creole Beethoven.”

From Today's New York Times

July 21, 2009

Music Review | Wardell Quezergue

Honoring an R&B Arranger Who Helped Singers Shine

Arrangers don’t get noticed much. Like cinematographers, they usually fill in the structures and concepts of others: songwriters and producers, who call on arrangers to deploy horns, strings or other sounds that might unobtrusively improve a song. But people who read album credits recognize that Wardell Quezergue, a working musician since 1953, is the rare exception: an arranger whose long career reveals him as a consistent catalyst of New Orleans R&B, and not just because he shares the songwriting credit on a ubiquitous New Orleans song, “It Ain’t My Fault.”

At Alice Tully Hall on Sunday night, the Lincoln Center Festival allied itself with the Ponderosa Stomp Foundation — the New Orleans record collectors-turned-promoters who find the musicians behind the obscure singles — to present a tribute to Mr. Quezergue. His wryly understated arrangements for horn sections in particular, drawing on local parade traditions and big-band jazz, often prod, tease or talk back to a singer and a song, with a chortling layer of syncopation that has helped define New Orleans rock.

Mr. Quezergue (pronounced keh-ZAIRG), now blind, lost his musical archives in the flood following Hurricane Katrina, but he arranged the music for the concert and conducted the band; he also recently released an album, “Music for Children Ages 3 to 103.” During changes, the band played reprises of “It Ain’t My Fault,” with a staccato horn melody bouncing off Hurley Blanchard’s stop-start drumming.

Mr. Quezergue is so well respected in his hometown, where he has been called “the Creole Beethoven,” that the concert assembled major New Orleans figures, including Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), the Dixie Cups, Robert Parker and Jean Knight, who have all been abetted by Mr. Quezergue’s arrangements. Onstage, as on the records, the arrangements were self-effacing showcases that flattered their quirky singers. Ms. Knight thanked him for “looking for this lady with this strange, different voice” to sing what became her major hit, “Mr. Big Stuff.”

Dorothy Moore, from Mississippi, performed with a voice as deep and sultry as it was when she had a hit with Mr. Quezergue’s arrangement of “Misty Blue” in 1976. In its archival way, the Ponderosa Stomp booked Mr. Rebennack to perform songs he wrote in the late 1950s: sly, funny, nearly forgotten New Orleans rockers like “Carry On” and “Lights Out.”

The lineup also included lesser-known New Orleans singers: Tony Owens, a raspy soul shouter who sang bluesy Earl King hits along with his own 1970 R&B hit, “Confessin’ a Feeling,” and Tammy Lynn, whose voice is rawer than it was in the 1960s but who turned her 1971 hit “Mojo Hannah” into a voodoo incantation, with Mr. Rebennack on piano and Zigaboo Modeliste, from the Meters, on drums.

The decorous Alice Tully Hall was not the ideal place for a Ponderosa Stomp. At home in New Orleans, it’s a dance party, not a seated concert. So the music took a little time to thaw the room.

When Mr. Parker sang his 1966 hit “Barefootin’,” which was produced by Mr. Quezergue, there was a touch of uncomfortable honesty when he sang: “Everybody get on your feet/You make me nervous when you’re in your seat.” But the Dixie Cups, the New Orleans girl group, had distributed napkins before the concert, to be waved over the New Orleans second-line parade beat, and they got the audience up and dancing for “Iko Iko,” which they turned into a medley of Mardi Gras songs and “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

After their segment, Rosa Hawkins of the Dixie Cups turned to Mr. Quezergue and said, “Thanks for the hits.”