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Music Inside Out: Aurora Nealand

Aurora Nealand, by Greg Miles
Greg Miles
Aurora Nealand, by Greg Miles

Before the composer and multi-instrumentalist Aurora Nealand takes a job, she’ll ask, “Did you want The Monocle or did you want The Royal Roses?”

Nealand has led those musical entities for years, and — like her — they lean in seemingly opposite directions. The Monocle invites listeners into a kind of magical, sonic storytelling that marries original poetry and traditional instruments with a patina of high technology. The Royal Roses plunge head-first into rousing experimental romps through traditional jazz. But Nealand also could ask whether a would- be client might enjoy The Jessicas — her punk duo with cellist Helen Gillet — or the cabaret show she and pianist Tom McDermott play together, sometimes inspired by old Buster Keaton classics. Then again, Nealand might offer to summon the leader of a rowdy band of hooligans who play spit-on-the-floor-and-fart type pop music with astonishing technical prowess, a woman who looks and sounds exactly like she does. That artist, like Nealand, also plays soprano saxophone and a variety of other instruments and she’s reachable at Nealand’s exact same telephone number. But she answers to the name “Rory Danger” of “Rory Danger and The Danger Dangers” fame. 

“It’s a confusing branding, right?” Nealand told Gwen recently. But “there’s no one project that can encapsulate any human, or performer.” 

No one encapsulates the idea of musical shape-shifting as adroitly as Nealand does. Her ability to bring whatever tools are needed to a song or musical project, seems to have begun in a childhood spent on the California coast and in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. That’s where she taught herself to play piano and a range of other instruments. Her parents — “hippies” she calls them — encouraged curiosity and musical appreciation but discouraged rule-making. That meant Nealand was free to do whatever she liked as a musician — and she came to like everything. 

From there, Nealand moved eastward — first to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, then New York, then Paris. She settled in New Orleans in 2004 and seven years later, made a head-turning debut at Preservation Hall with her band The Royal Roses. Their concert, featuring the music of Sidney Bechet, included dancers and top notch musicianship, making the evening a one-of-a-kind foray into performance art. Or perhaps, it was just another night in the New Orleans Bechet knew. In New Orleans, he wrote, “the music was as natural as the air.”

On the live recording that followed, Nealand added her own coda, “I wanted to convey the spirit his music inspires in each of us today — a vitality, a sense of exploration, a fierceness of individual personality, a need to dance or clap or shout.”

Nealand is now working on a project that will include the voices of veteran traditional jazz musicians. There’s still a lot to learn, she says, but that happens on and off the bandstand. “If you want tradition to really be a living tradition you have to let artists live within it.” On yet another Royal Roses album, titled, Comeback Children, Nealand includes a quote from composer Gustav Mahler that burnishes her philosophy to a brilliant shine:

“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”

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Gwen Thompkins is a New Orleans native, NPR veteran and host of WWNO's Music Inside Out, where she brings to bear the knowledge and experience she amassed as senior editor of Weekend Edition, an East Africa correspondent, the holder of Nieman and Watson Fellowships, and as a longtime student of music from around the world.