Mardi Gras Orchestra
3 p.m. Tue., Feb. 16
Hi-Ho Lounge, 2239 St. Claude Ave., 945-4446
8 p.m. Thu., Feb. 18
Yuki Izakaya, 525 Frenchmen St., 943-1122
Like a lot of New Orleanians, Helen Gillet had trouble talking on Wednesday. The problem wasn't a sore throat. "My lips are swollen twice their size," says Gillet, a cellist who took up an unfamiliar instrument — clarinet — for Tuesday's Super Bowl parade. Marching in front of the Lombardi Trophy didn't make it easier.
"I taught myself to play in the high register," Gillet says. "That was the only note I felt was cutting through. Between the crowd noise and Sean Payton's float, which was a huge train with this big horn whistle, the only chance I had to be heard was blowing high-register notes.
"I'm not a very good clarinet player," she adds sheepishly. "I have so much respect for brass bands."
Hand her a cello and it's a different story. At a recent Hi-Ho Lounge improv with three avant-garde masters — New York City jazz guitarist Terrence McManus and adopted New Orleans brass playing Michael Ray (trumpet) and Tim Green (tenor sax) — Gillet became a de facto conductor, directing traffic with body knocks, pizzicato bass plucks and bowed melodic phrases the others quickly followed.
"That was one of my favorite gigs ever, because it quickly got into that space where we were finishing each other's sentences," she says. "Tim and I have worked a lot together, so I wasn't surprised at all that we were getting a conversation going. But I hadn't played with Michael since way back in the day."
Gillet moved to New Orleans from Chicago in 2002 partly to learn the art of improvisation, which she equates to a blind date: "It's either a disaster or the best experience of your life."
With Ray (Sun Ra Arkestra, Kool & the Gang), rapport came easy. "He has this amazing ability of (keeping) the energy going. It's like when you're playing with a beach ball or something — the energy is keeping it up in the air. ... Michael blew me away."
Gillet returns to the Hi-Ho this week for what's fast becoming a Fat Tuesday tradition: the Mardi Gras Indian Orchestra, a rotating cast of 18 performers from tribes (Black Eagles, Yellow Pocahontas) and bands (Papa Mali, Radiators). Violinist Harry Hardin and clarinetist Evan Christopher round out the orchestra with Green and Gillet.
"The strings, I'm still discovering their role in this band," she says. "When the music is getting to that climactic point, the strings can really help lift it."
Her ease with disparate musical styles is a byproduct of her international upbringing, Gillet says. "I was raised in Singapore in a French school with kids from China and India and France and England and America. For me, it was normal to have to figure out what someone else's customs were."
Though classically trained, she was never satisfied playing only classical music. "It didn't feel like I would be a complete musician to stop there. ... I made a commitment: Wouldn't it be a fun ride if I took the cello into as many different places as possible?"
Hence, Indian chants on Mardi Gras, French chansons weekly with her group Wazozo — even Pink Floyd when the occasion calls for it (Feb. 26's Circle Bar tribute to The Wall). "I'm translating 'Mother' into French and playing it with my cello," Gillet says. "The translation is kind of tricky: 'Mother, do you think they'll try to break my balls?'"
And, of course, the Ying Yang Twins on clarinet. "We rotated between that and 'When the Saints Go Marching In,'" she laughs. "We played [Prince's] 'Pussy Control,' which I was actually very bad at. The NFL made it clear we had to keep it clean. Family event."