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Musical Chairs 

During the French Quarter Festival, New Orleans' top musicians hustle from gig to gig and genre to genre.

If the musician you're watching at the French Quarter Festival looks familiar, you're probably not suffering from déjà vu. He or she was undoubtedly playing in another band earlier that day. Take, for example, Rick Trolsen. Some people know him from his work with Mark Mullins in the trombone-driven Bonerama, while others know him from the avant-garde Neslort, and others have seen him leading Gringo do Choro. He will perform with at least five bands this French Quarter Festival, including his own.

On Friday, you can catch Trolsen playing trombone with Brasilliance at the Latin Heritage stage. Later that day he will perform with Banu Gibson at Jackson Square. Then he's closing another stage with the New Orleans Nightcrawlers.

"You've got Latin, '20s jazz and modern New Orleans brass band music," says Trolsen. "My band's performance is on Saturday. So far it's the only one that day, but I'm expecting a call from someone else that's playing that day. Sunday I'm with Al Belletto at Jackson Square playing swing music from the big band era."

During French Quarter Festival, Trolsen gets a chance to play the music closest to his heart.

"Most people don't know, but I play traditional jazz most of the time, just doing general business gigs, conventions and private parties," he explains. "So this is the one time of year that I get to play that music for people who are going to be listening. I throw together my favorite songs, put in a couple of originals, then I hire some great musicians. This year I've got Charlie Miller, Walter Payton, Carey Brown, Clarence Johnson III and Frederick Sanders. I got lucky because I had some other people lined up but they didn't call back. I think this is going to be a great lineup."

Trolsen says his ability to play different styles of music is the key to his success as a full-time musician. "If I was only a one-trick pony I guess I would have a day gig," he admits, "but the fact is I can play Brazilian, traditional, avant-garde music, and it's not just the ability, it's the inclination to want to do all those things. We're not even talking about Bonerama. Then on Sunday night I'm playing with Kevin Clark at Snug Harbor."

All that running around can create some strange situations.

"The thing that strikes me about French Quarter Festival is that everybody is busy, everybody is running from one stage to another," says Trolsen. "I remember a time when the Nightcrawlers were playing. I was on that gig and I had to leave early to make Tim Laughlin's gig, then Craig had to leave with someone else's band and somehow Mark Mullins ended up playing with the Nightcrawlers, of whom he'd never been a part. Just for those last 10 minutes of the set. That's how spread out you can get."

Saxophonist Jason Mingledorff, who plays with Trolsen in the Nightcrawlers, recalls similar experiences.

"French Quarter Fest is crazy," he said. "I remember one French Quarter Fest I got the call that morning because the regular saxophone player had stayed up all night drinking and couldn't play. They had a gig that morning. 'Can you come down and play. I just talked to our saxophone player and he can't make the gig.'"

Last year Mingledorff had a typical FQF experience.

"Early in the morning I played with Friends of Jabu over in front of the courthouse and right after that I walked around the corner and played with Ronnie Magri and the Shim Sham Revue band. Friends of Jabu is kind of world music and funk. Ronnie Magri was a burlesque show, so it was a lot of traditional jazz mixed in with some swing. I also played with the New Orleans Nightcrawlers on the brass band stage that day. Then at the end of the day in the Pavilion I played with Papa Grows Funk. It's all kind of a blur."

Sometimes players have to switch styles and contexts so quickly they forget what band they're in at a given moment.

"It's a little surreal," says Mingledorff. "I'll be on a gig that's supposedly one genre but maybe in my head I can hear the influences of the other ones in there. I kind of look around on the bandstand and say 'This guy who I'm playing funk with, he probably played a swing gig earlier with somebody else. This guy was playing with a Latin band earlier. So I'm probably not going crazy'."

One thing all of the musicians agree on is that the closeness to the audience at the festival gives the event special meaning.

"It's like Jazz Fest used to be," says Trolsen. "It's much more personal. I've been realizing it's something I really value. I've played jazz festivals all over the world and I personally prefer the smaller, more intimate setting. It's something that encourages me more and more."

click to enlarge Trombonist Rick Trolsen is scheduled to perform Latin, '20s jazz and modern New Orleans brass band music at different points during the French Quarter Festival: "This is the one time of year that I get to play that music for people who are going to be listening."
  • Trombonist Rick Trolsen is scheduled to perform Latin, '20s jazz and modern New Orleans brass band music at different points during the French Quarter Festival: "This is the one time of year that I get to play that music for people who are going to be listening."
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