Everybody knows about New Orleans’ rich musical tradition—but an even more deeply rooted tradition in the Crescent City is one of perpetual reinvention. It’s a city that’s been reborn countless times over the course of its multi-cultural history, a legacy vibrantly reflected in its music.
With the release of their debut album, Dogs, in 2016, the Nolatet – vibraphonist Mike Dillon, pianist Brian Haas, bassist James Singleton and drummer Johnny Vidacovich – added their own new twist to the New Orleans tradition. Now the quartet returns with their much-anticipated follow-up, ‘No Revenge Necessary,’ which takes the music through as many winding turns and colorful pathways as a Second Line parade route.
“‘Dogs’ was beginner’s luck,” says Singleton. “We had just started as a band, and we managed to somehow pull together a cohesive program. To me that small miracle was a good omen for the future.”
After criss-crossing the country together touring behind ‘Dogs,’ Haas says, “we can take bigger musical risks in the studio and not fall on our butts. The more you play improvised music with the same line-up the luckier you can get as a band. This new album is WAY rowdier and riskier.” As Dillon adds, “a year of touring and festivals has made this band of unique improvisers stand on an island beyond the normal jazz arms race.”
While ‘Dogs’ was the first time these four came together as a unit, there was plenty of history already shared between them. Singleton and Vidacovich can boast more than four decades of playing together, during which they’ve established themselves as New Orleans’ most revered rhythm section. Dillon and Haas have crossed paths endlessly along the routes of their relentless touring schedules with bands like Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Garage a Trois, Critters Buggin and the Dead Kenny Gs.
“The wealth of music experience amongst ourselves is why Nolatet has its own voice,” says Haas. “After a few years you don’t learn the other person’s music—you learn the other person!”
That knowledge pays off in a sonic portrait like “Lanky, Stanky Maestro,” which Haas wrote in honor of Vidacovich and which evokes an explosive barrage of rakish outbursts from the drummer. Singleton calls it “pure slop/funk/mid-city/spaghetti-eatin’ grease”—and he’d know better than anyone. He continues that the “constant counterpoint conversation (including and especially the kit) is a contemporary flowering of the polyphony present in New Orleans music from 100 ears and years ago. That’s how we are able to reflect the complexities of adult lives with relatively simple materials.”
On the wildly spiraling “Bluebelly,” Singleton tips his hat to the more (post) modern sounds that he was confronted with through bandmate Dillon’s work in Garage a Trois alongside drummer Stanton Moore and saxophonist Skerik. Haas’ tumultuous “Homer and Debbie” was penned as an ode to two of his five dogs, and more expansively about life and death, youth and old age. Dillon’s “Elegant Miss J” commemorates a lost love and the pitfalls that follow when romance meets a life on the road. Landscape was also an inspiration for Haas, who wrote the imposing “Gracemont” under the sway of Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains and the down-home “Pecos Wilderness” while musing on the terrain near his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Then there are the inevitable passions that arise from a world in turmoil and the rebirth that (hopefully) can rise from it, as has happened time and again in New Orleans’ beleaguered past. Singleton’s “Dike Finger” is his response to Hurricane Katrina, erupting in anger and then giving way to optimism and solidarity. Haas’ title track “No Revenge Necessary” casts both a more intimate and a much wider net, sparked by the end of a relationship, but expanding to encompass the divisive times in which we all find ourselves these days.
“For me the over-riding theme moving forward is forgiveness,” Singleton sums up. “Hopefully the strength of the music can serve as a reminder of the possibility of growth and healing through forgiving.”