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American Routes Shortcuts: Evan Christopher

Evan Christopher
April Renae Photography/April Renae Photography
Evan Christopher

Evan Christopher began playing clarinet in junior high school in Long Beach, CA. His first introduction to New Orleans music was hearing Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Sevens with Johnny Dodds and Artie Shaw on his dad’s records. Evan moved to New Orleans in his early 20s. Here he worked as a steamboat clarinetist by day and explored the music scene on Frenchmen Street by night. He went on to collaborate with Tom McDermott, Al Hirt, the New Orleans Nightcrawlers, Galactic, and others. His “Clarinet Road” led him from Socal to New Orleans, San Antonio, Paris, and he now resides in New York City. Evan told us how he came to understand the music of New Orleans. 

Evan Christopher: What became immediately apparent to me was that the traditional jazz sounds that I was enchanted by, those sounds actually were not a huge part of the soundscape of New Orleans, and I quickly learned that I guess what you might call traditional jazz was actually quite different than traditional New Orleans music. Different set of values and even some of the musical elements were different. And then also to see these contemporary applications of the tradition, specifically in the brass band music that was evolving, there’s such a quick, easy to hear connection between the music of the street and then the dance music. That confluence of those different social aspects of New Orleans life, they all kind of blend together very easily in the music, and they kind of all evolve together. That was kicks to be walking around in the footsteps of musicians that I thought of as playing the more traditional way and to be reminded that today’s traditions were yesterday’s modern music.

Nick Spitzer: What about historic recordings? I mean, is this the kind of thing where you sit in an apartment and listen to a recording and then try to recreate it or just get ideas from it and then do it your way?

EC: The process of taking lessons from ghosts was a little bit easier in New Orleans because already most of them had been interviewed pretty extensively, and their interviews were archived, and on some of these interviews they actually played and not only discussed their background and growing up. And I was really in search of some sort of a template–as if it existed–for, you know, how can I make sure that I’m playing clarinet in the most authentic way possible? You know, there’s a lot of things that hadn’t changed dramatically so that when you heard these musicians talking about the neighborhoods they grew up in, you can find these places just wandering around town, and it’s all still kind of right there.

NS: Well how about legendary New Orleans clarinet players, you go to Sidney Bechet quite often?

EC: Sure, yeah of course. Bechet was just one of the most imaginative improvising musicians, and I think it’s just the huge range of ideas that he was able to have and the structure that he was able to add–almost like compositional structure in a way–to his improvisations was something that fascinates me and definitely caught my ear at the time. One of the other things that I love about the clarinet, especially the clarinet in New Orleans, is actually the role of the instrument in the ensemble. And trumpet is the dominant instrument, and he’s the one that gets to play the melody, and you get to play everything else, and that’s kind of fun, the counterpoint with trumpet players. And Sidney Bechet was a master of that. That is actually one of the most fun challenges about the ensemble playing that we associate with the traditional New Orleans music, even more than what people think of as collective improvisation, it’s actually collective orchestration, and so you’re really trying to bring a sense of the composed to the music as a harmony instrument.

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.