New Mexico Jazz Festival: Tom McDermott

Getting Better All the Time

Photo by Rick Olivier.

Photo by Rick Olivier.

In 1996, while in New Orleans for jazz fest, I picked up a copy of Offbeat magazine and
discovered a well-written article about one of my favorite piano players from that city, the late James Booker. I thought I had all the legally available recordings, but the article mentioned two German LPs that I had never heard of. Even better, they were solo performances, so there would be no half-assed sidemen gumming up the works.

I did what any self-respecting obsessionist would do: I looked up the writer in the phone book and placed the call. (My wife still can’t believe I did that, and I still can’t figure out why she feels that way.) When he answered, I thanked him for the article and inquired if he would be willing, since the LPs were not available in the States, to record them for me if I supplied the cassette tapes.

Yes, he said, he would, and that’s how I met Tom McDermott, who will close the 2013 New Mexico Jazz Festival this Sunday at the Outpost.

Player and Composer
McDermott turned out to be a piano player and composer, as well as a music journalist. So along with the Booker tapes came a copy of his then current album, All the Keys and Then Some, which opened a brand-new avenue for obsession. (I also ordered the sheet music for All the Keys from him and was utterly defeated by it. I found it better to listen to him play the music.)

For 17 years now, I’ve watched and listened with fascination as this original talent has matured. I’ve come to learn only recently that he considers himself a composer first, and pianist second. I am utterly mesmerized by his abilities as a player—I’ll venture that just for starters, there are very few who can equal his rhythmic flair and contortions—but I have to confess that I’ve
always been even more impressed with the beauty of his compositions, which can
simultaneously offer goofy humor and ethereal moodiness. In a letter to him back in 1996, I wrote: “It sounds like Gershwin introducing Satie to Booker, and then Chopin comes along for the ride. You crossbreed the styles so adeptly—with the right doses of humor, intelligence, and passion—and create something quite wonderful.”

I’m hoping that, come this weekend, we’ll get to hear plenty of his original material. (Tom, can you hear me?)

The Booker Connection
It was Booker that drew McDermott to New Orleans from his native St. Louis (another town with a great piano tradition), but the “Black Liberace” passed away before McDermott got there. In the movie Bayou Maharajah, Booker says his music contained “old soul with new
wrinkles,” and you might say exactly the same about McDermott’s output.

While other kids were listening to rock and roll, McDermott was steeping himself in Joshua Rifkin’s recordings of Joplin rags. “I took classical lessons,” he told me a few years ago, “then got into ragtime in high school and at the same time started playing the trad jazz that kind of
overlaps with ragtime—like Jelly Roll and James P. Johnson, and things like that, stride piano.”

McDermott’s interest expanded over time to include all varieties of the New World’s late-19th/early-20th–century syncopated music. I’m not sure who came up with the term “tradical jazz”—wish I had—but it’s a fitting description of what McDermott does, both as a player and composer. What else can you call it when someone turns a Sousa march written for brass band into a piano boogie-woogie; or injects Jelly Roll Morton into Chopin and vice versa; or gently syncopates “Norwegian Wood” through a series of styles, from the deliquescence of
Fauré to the funky R&B of James Booker; or composes a whimsical French musette that
explodes with polyphonic improvisational possibilities?

His concert at the Outpost will likely feature these sorts of chimerical pieces. “I’ll play some choros, two or three. There’s one piece I play that shows how I took a Scott Joplin rag and turned it into a choro,” he says. Also on the menu are an Albeniz piece adapted for 12/8, with Paul Gonzales on congas. (He’ll join McDermott as both percussionist and trumpeter on

“I’ve been playing ‘Tennessee Waltz’ with a Caribbean rhythm, and maybe ‘Blueberry Hill’ with my African rhythm like I did on Duets,” McDermott adds. (Duets was named album of the year in 2009 by Offbeat.)

My experience says that chances are good that some New Orleans standards, Ernesto Nazareth, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and Harold Arlen, among others, could make an
appearance in the course of the evening. Of course, there will be McDermott originals galore. (Right, Tom?)

A Growing (Old) Stature
McDermott has just passed through an uncomfortable and unlucky period. In September 2011, he broke his left wrist in a fall, and for the last couple of years, he’s been fighting the
reoccurrence of a ferocious, debilitating tinnitus.

Photo by Stéphane Péniguel.

Photo by Stéphane Péniguel.

The wrist is healed, he now has the tinnitus down to a dull manageable roar, and things are looking up. The HBO series Treme, set in New Orleans, has featured his music, and he’s played himself on a couple of episodes. The television
revenue allows him the luxury of turning down some of the $100 gigs that he formerly accepted reflexively, and it’s led to wider appreciation of his work.

Songwriter Van Dyke Parks has curated a new “best of” album of McDermott’s music that also includes a previously
unreleased composition. Titled Bamboula (Minky Records), it will be released nationally on September 24 and could bring even greater exposure.

“I’ve turned into an elder of sorts at age 55,” McDermott jokes ruefully.

The music, however, never grows old.

Tom McDermott
Sunday, July 28, 8:00 p.m.
Outpost Performance Space
210 Yale Blvd. SE, Albuquerque
Tickets $20/$15 members and students
For more info, call 268-0044.

For additional reading pleasure, check out “Tom McDermott, the Sound of New Orleans, and Beyond” and “Tom McDermott, Big Easy Pianist/Composer Off-Kilter and on Target.”

© 2013 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.

9 thoughts on “New Mexico Jazz Festival: Tom McDermott

  1. Frank Hoffman

    Not only Johnson; never, ever underestimate the prose wizardry of Mr. James Boswell (a moment of silence please.)
    You are in good company indeed, sir!

    1. Mel Post author

      I just realized why “passionate intensity” rang oddly in my ear.

      “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

      From “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats

      What do you mean to imply, sir?

      1. Frank Hoffman

        You are correct of course. I had forgotten that those words were from the great WBY. Please take my words (unwittingly borrowed from the arch-poet) at face value. You write with “passionate intensity” in the best sense of those words. I hope my final comment to “rave on” clinches that for you.
        Perhaps a better choice of words would have been “a measured passion.” Clearly “passion” is the operative word here.
        Once again, rave on, rave on, rave on.

          1. Frank Hoffman

            By the way, you were nicely echoing Dr. Johnson in your question. As I recall when challenged by Boswell he replied “What is your drift sir, what is your drift?”

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