As the rhythms roll and tumble across the piano keyboard, sometimes it seems the world comes together in the hands of Henry Roeland Byrd, better known as Professor Longhair.
Born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, and raised in New Orleans, "Fess" first began teaching himself piano when he found a broken-down one with keys missing in an alley. It was a sign of things to come that the young Byrd was able to pull music together from the snaggle-toothed collection of keys on his unlikely instrument.
As he grew up, Byrd pulled together the Afro-Cuban, Caribbean, jazz and blues he heard around him, almost single-handedly creating the New Orleans piano sound that is so familiar today. Listening to his rollicking playing and singing, you can hear early rock 'n' roll, blues and the mambo magically shimmying together as one.
Byrd never achieved the commercial success equivalent to his place in music and recorded a handful of records over the years. The recently released Live in Chicago (Orleans) has seven songs from a folk festival in 1976, adding to the precious few samples of the Professor convening class.
Professor Longhair was the real deal, and had his hard-times bonafides. When he sings of the rough-living characters in songs, it's not hard to imagine him an eyewitness to the barroom brawls and bad-behaving folk in the Crescent City demimonde. He was never a candidate for crossover in the early, segregated pre-Elvis years of popular music, but remained a New Orleans favorite for decades, reaching up to the national charts once with "Bald Head." Later stars from Fats Domino to Allen Toussaint to Dr. John acknowledge his influence.
By the 1960s, though, he was sweeping the floor in a record shop to pay his bills, but had a bit of a revival with a landmark performance at the second New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1971.
Live in Chicago was recorded in 1976 and later mixed by Billy Gregory, who played fiery lead guitar for the gig. The recording is clean but not as robust as Longhair's best-recorded album, Rock and Roll Gumbo, though with Fess's raw singing and galloping style of playing, pristine fidelity does seem beside the point.
Fess here does rave-ups of some of his signature songs such as "Mess Around," "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" and "Big Chief"; adding some blues tunes - or his mambofied version of the blues - "Got My Mojo Working" and "Every Day I Have the Blues."
Long-time Professor Longhair fans may want to think twice about jumping on this, since they might already have versions of the staples, but for new fans, it is a good opportunity to discover an overlooked master. As veteran critic Robert Christgau once wrote of Professor Longhair: "If you've never heard of him, you don't know as much as you think you do." Hearing Professor Longhair for the first time is simply fun, but it's also like discovering a lost chapter in your own life story.
If Professor Longhair represents a triumph of American musical synthesis then one of his spiritual descendants is the New York-based band Hazmat Modine. Their recently released third album, Extra-Deluxe-Supreme is not overtly like Professor Longhair's playfully propulsive hybrid, but it is deeply steeped in the blues, while pushing and pulling into other genres - mostly American, but also from other cultures.
The band's lynchpin is Wade Schuman, who plays harmonica, sings and writes songs with guitarist and co-lead singer Erik Della Penna. The band's sprawling musical territory is evident from its roster: tuba player Joe Daly has performed with bluesman Taj Mahal and jazz notables Gil Evans and Charlie Hayden; guitarist Michaela Gomez, who often pushes the band toward a rock-y sound with her Fender, has played with members of Ween and the band Slavic Soul Party; sax player Steve Elson, who played with the Johnny Otis R&B Revue and David Bowie; and Pam Fleming, who has played trumpet with jazz, reggae and klezmer performers.
The songs on Extra-Deluxe-Supreme use elements of gospel and the blues, but deftly weave them into evocative lyrics and ever-shifting, well-done arrangements. The result is an album that has the deep soul usually associated from vintage recordings and is continually engaging, whether it is the poignant "Whiskey Bird," or the brass-fueled toe-tapping humor of "Plans."
A little like Professor Longhair, the multi-generational, hard-to-categorize band has underachieved in terms of commercial success in the U.S., while attracting more enthusiasm in Europe and among aficionados where they find them at home. Remarkably, the band has persevered since the late 1980s, recording sporadically, defying the black-hole gravity of the crumbling star-making machinery of the modern recording industry.
Both albums are tributes to American musicians' ingenuity and eagerness for leaping borders just for fun.
Professor Longhair in concert with the Meters
Hazmat Modine official video for "Moving Stones"