Looking to spend Mardi Gras in Los Angeles with some real New Orleans music? Well, your top choices are a piano player from England at the Echo and a bunch of New York jazzbos at UCLA’s Royce Hall. Oh, and some Brooklyn-based Indian-Americans playing stylized bhangra brass music, also at Royce.
Well, there is a ringer. New Orleans-born pianist Henry Butler co-fronts that group of NYC jazz men, billed as Henry Butler-Steven Bernstein & the Hot 9. He’s one of the premier ivory-ticklers in a city known for that, a leading force in the generation that came along after such titans as Prof. Longhair and James Booker set the bar for freewheeling rhythmic complexity and melodic invention — not to mention good ol’ boisterous party music.
While this ensemble, a genius combination of talents if there ever was one, doesn’t play it straight in terms of traditions, the twists on classic forms, the mixes of traditional and very modern, sprung from the creative mind and talents of trumpeter-arranger-composer Bernstein, make for some of the most exciting, engaging, booty-shaking music you’ll find. Just ask anyone in the discerning crowd at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival when the group performed in 2014 shortly after the release of its album, “Viper’s Drag,” itself a supreme set that captures the excitement of the live band. Don’t just take my word for it. Check out this review by, OK, me.
And, to be honest, that Englishman at the Echoplex is something of a ringer too. Jon Cleary, though born in Kent, moved to New Orleans in 1980 when he was but 17, drawn by the mystical music of Longhair and Booker and Fats Domino, among others. Accent aside, he quickly became a go-to player around town for his mastery of the local sounds, as well as gaining a coveted gig for more than a decade in Bonnie Raitt’s band.
His albums and performances, both solo and with his funky backing band the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, not only showcase both digital dexterity and a real feel for the spirit of the music, but some original flair as a player and songwriter, as well as gritty, soulful singer. His latest, “GoGo Juice,” just won 2015 album of the year honors bestowed by the critics and readers of Offbeat, the authoritative New Orleans music magazine. Don’t just take their word for it. Check out this review by, yeah, me again.
As for those Brooklyn bhangra boys? Well, that’s Red Baraat, who will be opening for Butler-Bernstein at Royce with its distinctive, rowdy takes on Punjabi wedding music. But its heart is as much in New Orleans as in New Delhi or New York, a point made very clear when the group built major buzz as a virtual unknown in a New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival appearance in 2011.
When the set started, on one tiny stage in competition with big-name headliners (John Mellencamp, John Legend and the Roots, the Decemberists among them) playing on other stages on the Festival grounds, there were maybe two dozen people in the audience. But steadily as the set went on, people wandering by would stop, curious about the sounds coming from these guys with drums and brass, and in some cases turbans and beards. By the end an hour later, there were hundreds of people dancing on the grass.
Ever since, Red Baraat — founded and fronted by the ever-sunny Sunny Jain, beater of the dhol, bhangra’s signature two-headed drum that’s hit with bent sticks — has made a number of repeat visits to the Crescent City, almost adopted as local, all the while the music taking on more and more of the Mardi Gras feel, as well as more and more of the sounds of the Brooklyn streets for a truly bracing mix. NPR has called it “the best party band in years.” Don’t just take their word for it. Check out this report after that 2011 JazzFest set by… well, you know.
However you plan to celebrate, if you want to get primed, Amoeba Records in Hollywood is holding an in-store Mardi Gras party and parade — masks, beads and even floats — Tuesday afternoon, staring with a DJ set at 2:30, followed by Congo Square dancers and drummers at 3:30 and then the masked march through the aisles.
Now pass the king cake and throw me somethin’, mister!
||| Stream: Henry Butler, “Orleans Inspiration” and “Joyful Noise” (Live at Jazzfest)
||| Watch: Butler & Bernstein, “Dixie Walker”
||| Stream: Jon Cleary, “Boneyard” and “9-5”
► Butler, Bernstein & The Hot 9 and Red Baraat at Royce Hall, 8 p.m. Tuesday. Tickets.
► Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen at the Echo, 8 p.m. Tuesday. Tickets.
► Fat Tuesday at Amoeba, 2:30 p.m. Tuesday. Details.