Right from the start, my natural aversion to banjo music abandons me completely, as I listen to French Onion Superman. After all, I think to myself, it’s an instrument like any other and the player determines the sound. But in this case, I’ll use the word “artist,” as longtime New Orleans musician David Bandrowski certainly displays that sensibility in his own playing, as well as in his wisdom in gathering together a colorful palette of musical talent that hits all the joyful marks and makes me smile.
The disc is his debut recording as a leader, although you may recognize his name. While spending time here in 2011, he co-founded San Diego’s award-winning Euphoria Brass Band, along with Ron Bocian (also from New Orleans) and Jazz88 radio DJ Drew Miller. Bandrowski has been on the New Orleans music scene for almost 30 years playing tenor banjo, guitar, and five-string banjo. He covers a wide range of styles that include New Orleans jazz and R&B, bluegrass, rock, and more.
Let’s talk about the album and how it moves.
Every time I think one instrument is the star of the show, another steps gracefully into the spotlight to command center stage. In addition to Bandrowski on banjo, there is Mark Braud on trumpet, Tom Fischer on clarinet, Charlie Halloran on trombone, Nobu Ozaki on bass, and Doug Belote on drums. Be sure to look these guys up for a multitude of other credits. The disc was mastered by Brian iele in Buenos Aires, and that is notably a strong point. I hear every instrument with clarity and strength, yet nothing overpowers the senses. There is no extraneous noise, no air, just a magical parallel universe of perfect sound.
The first track, “Long Face,” by Louisiana songwriter Bobby Charles, is the longest at seven minutes and begins with the banjo setting the pace and energy. Next up is the brass and clarinet, each throwing in simultaneous lines that complement the buildup, then back to banjo. The trumpet initiates a change at 1:53 and stretches out a bit. The clarinet takes off at 2:27 in buttery, flawless tones that slide effortlessly over my ears, followed by another change ushered in by the trombone for an extended solo. Then everyone reconnects in a back-and-forth collaboration, trading lines, and that’s when the buildup begins in earnest. They let loose a firestorm at around 5:04, with each playing all out yet still holding on to the theme. I keep thinking, surely, that’s it, right? But, no, it is a full two minutes of orchestrated chaos and friction, ending in quiet composure.
“Ay Cosita Linda” is a Colombian cumbia by Pacho Galán. It’s a wake-up tune, like a stiff shot of espresso. The banjo fits perfectly, sounding almost indigenous or like those old-world street musicians that make you wonder why they’re on the street. Clarinet and banjo take turns with formal, somewhat restrained melody lines, setting up a traditional, full sound. The whole thing begins to loosen up at 1:51 with the trombone and trumpet cracking the shell. Deliverance sits with the clarinet at 2:07 in a brief but unleashed and fluid drive. At this point, trombone, trumpet, banjo, and clarinet all do their part in revving the engine. At 2:46 we get another quick blast from the clarinet that brings tears to my eyes. It rises, seemingly effortlessly, over the others with a sudden break in the dam, a veritable flood of happy. Banjo brings us back to the beginning for the afterglow, just before the only vocals on the album sing “la la la” to the close.
Hank Williams’ “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” is highly visual, raucous, and fun, a lively woman in a sultry, smoky room. The muted trumpet creates an audacious voice, and there is a dance between the trumpet and trombone as they strut about for that same lively woman. The clarinet solo at 1:54 sizzles, slightly breathy and enticing. The banjo and drums at 3:42 present a different face but are still very much a part of the spree. Everyone has a part in laying down the attitude, but we keep coming back to the trumpet, which demands we listen, and in fact, join in the dance. This is my favorite.
I don’t know Aunt Tillie, but apparently she’s got some hip-swinging sass when stepping out. On Duke Ellington’s “Shout ‘Em Aunt Tillie,” the trumpet carries the movement and the trombone and clarinet offer the glisten. The banjo comes in for a serious stroll, then hands it off to the trumpet. The clarinet, then trombone each take solos that sway swelteringly, furthering my vision of walking a crowded nighttime city street. They all come back together to end it how it started.
Neither the rain nor this song could bring me down. From the very first note on “I Get the Blues When It Rains,” the trombone shines especially bold and bright, then hands it off to the trumpet for more of the same. There is a good extended banjo solo sharing rhythmic counter punches with the drums. Everyone mounts for the push at 4:20 and they are all kicking it until the abrupt close.
The arrangement on “Johnny Too Bad” is open and sparse. It fits and conveys a resigned sadness. Laid-back drums support the banjo in delivering plaintive lines, and the trombone thoughtfully emphasizes the mood. The clarinet brings in a bit of sweet optimism, but all in all this song is rooted well in its own tragic story.
They make a good showing on a number of traditional pieces and the whole album is a delight. The musicians are all first-rate and succeeded in making me come back time and again to listen and to even hear them replaying inside my own head.
This was a lovely party and I’m grateful to their heartfelt introduction. I’m happy to introduce them to you as well. Have a listen today to David Bandrowski’s French Onion Superman at davidbandrowski.com/music