Photo by Rick Olivier.
Since passing through these parts last summer, Tom McDermott
has traversed the northern half of the Americas, playing concerts in exotic locales from Alaska to Costa Rica, but it was an encounter with a hero from his youth in the relatively unexotic Twin Cities that left a lasting
impression on the New Orleans pianist and helped reshape his repertoire.
“I went and visited my childhood idol, maybe my first childhood idol after my mom, pianistically speaking,” says McDermott, who has enjoyed much-deserved wider exposure since his
appearances on the hit HBO series Treme. “That was Max Morath. He was Mister Ragtime. His career started in the fifties, and it went strong till the nineties. Now he’s retired.”
Little did Morath, born in Colorado Springs in 1926, know it, but he helped shape McDermott’s approach to playing ragtime and, for that matter, everything else he’s tackled along the way. This Saturday, at the Outpost, McDermott will offer a smorgasbord of syncopation via his
distinctively charming and astonishingly double-jointed pianism.
McDermott’s repertoire is rooted in the traditions of ragtime (after all, he grew up in St. Louis), early jazz (he’s lived in New Orleans for decades), Brazilian choros (he’s gone down there 16 times), Cuban rumbas (two or three extended island trips have made his ears even bigger, metaphorically speaking), and other antiquarian syncopated genres, including new discoveries made on his visit to Costa Rica.
Rooted he may be, but he takes a tradical approach, treating that music as a living thing, not a relic to be venerated under glass. He plays with it, injecting daring improvimutations, delirious rhythmic displacements, and rococo melodic filigrees, exploring the limits of what this music can support (and it can support whatever you throw at it).
While other musicians, especially James Booker, reinforced that approach, it was Morath who seeded it in McDermott early on. “One, he didn’t play the scores absolutely as written,”
McDermott says, “and two, he swung the music. You can play the music straight, or you can play it with dotted rhythms, and he swung it, which is a matter of contention in the ragtime world.”
McDermott does both, depending on the piece, and he is ready to take a piece to places
undreamed of by the composer—and to do it in a way that is musically logical, however
As a result of his meeting with Morath, McDermott went back and relearned three or four pieces by James Scott and Joseph Lamb that he used to play as a kid but has not played for years. “They’re the great ragtimers after Joplin,” says McDermott, “both wonderful composers, who I’ve just kind of let fall by the wayside.”
The Twin Cities trip also included a gig with “a fantastic accordionist, Patrick Harrison,” who was instrumental in getting McDermott to learn a Brazilian piece by Jacob do Bandolim (born Jacob Pick Bittencourt, 1918–1969). “He wrote great music, and I’ve played it in groups, but I’ve never worked out a piano solo,” says McDermott, who considers him one of the three greatest choro composers, along with Pixinguinha and Ernesto Nazareth.
Bittencourt played the bandolim, the mandolin used in choro music, and he jettisoned his Euro-sounding name in favor of a more Brazilian monicker. “The Brazilians have this great habit of naming themselves after the instruments they play,” McDermott says. “ ‘So-and-so do’—do means ‘of the’—‘pandeiro.’ ‘So-and-so do viola.’ They’re really charming.”
McDermott intends to vary things up a bit from his previous appearances. “I feel I’ve kind of
repeated myself in past shows,” he says, “and I’m really making an effort to showcase new
music, even though I have not been writing new music.”
McDermott’s original compositions—he’s tallied about 80 now—reflect his wide-ranging interest in various antique genres. He’s written rags, R&B tunes, choros, musettes, even an homage to Randy Newman, and all his pieces share a common characteristic: antic or melancholic, up
tempo or down, they continually charm the ear with unexpected and disarming developments, little twists and turns that do to the ear what a dip in the road does to the stomach.
He is just now beginning to write again, after a serious illness in 2012 and an ongoing battle with tinnitus made that all but impossible. “The tinnitus is still bugging me,” he says, “but thank God, I’m functional now.”
Reminded by the presenters of the Albuquerque concert, the Smooth Operators,* that he hasn’t played much of his own material here, he says he will consider making the concert more “McDermott-centric.”
Whatever he chooses to play, the evening will be “jam-packed with interesting stuff,” he says, and if the past is any guide to the future, you can count on it.
Outpost Performance Space
Saturday, July 5, 7:30 p.m.
$15 at the door, cash or check only
For more info: 505-898-7382 or 505-242-0215
You can find more of my observations about McDermott here and here and here.
*The Smooth Operators are Tom Dellaira and myself, and we have no monetary interest in this concert. We just want to hear McDermott play, and we appreciate the willingness of Tom
Guralnick at the Outpost to make the venue available.
© 2014 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.