Pianist and composer Tom McDermott is known for taking a crafty approach to the genres he tackles, from traditional jazz to Brazilian choro. He rarely plays it straight, tempering mastery of a form with personal winks and nods. The effect brings to mind the adage that to truly understand another language, one should be able to get jokes told in its vernacular. McDermott's versions of styles and standards always come out with that level of understanding, and on his delightfully whimsical new collection, New Orleans Duets, he approaches material with a more literal lightness of heart. The album's 21 songs — originals and covers — are as fluent as always and also contain some outright gags.
In the liner notes to Duets, McDermott writes, "I will defend my lack of gravitas by noting that humor has always been a big part of New Orleans music: Jelly Roll's hokum, Satchmo's mugging, Louis Prima's antics, the Boswell Sisters' verbal and musical lunacy, Huey Piano Smith's nonsense lyrics, and so on. And besides, post-K New Orleans can use more laughs."
Some songs on Duets are serious and seriously reverent. The original song "Opulence," performed with the Panorama Jazz Band's Aurora Nealand on soprano sax, is as rich, luxurious and delicate as a Louis XIV chair. A few bring humor of the rubber-chicken variety, like the upbeat and snarky "Sportsmen's Paradise" with Anders Osborne. "That's What I Saw at the Mardi Gras" is a nonsense song in the best Carnival-nonsense-song tradition, recorded with Debbie Davis. "One-Chord Song" is a goofy slice of semi-psychedelic funk that McDermott and Harry Shearer pounded out in less than three hours of studio time.
Particularly enjoyable are the efforts where McDermott seems to have let his musicians' fancy take the lead. A version of Sam Cooke's "Cupid" with John Boutté is far less Valentine-y than the original, with James Booker-style piano underneath. A version of "Blueberry Hill" with African percussionist Seguenon Kone winds up as a tricky battle of rhythms that's hardly recognizable as Fats' original triplets; when the familiar melody emerges, it's like a surprise treat. McDermott also added piano to an a cappella track from Jelly Roll Morton's Library of Congress sessions, "Tricks Ain't Walkin' No More," which contains its own turnabout within the song. It's a lovely ballad about a prostitute desperate for clients.
"It's not a straightforward thing," says McDermott, laughing. "You're seduced by the languor and Jelly Roll's beautiful voice, but underneath the surface, it's pretty awful."
McDermott's recordings and regular gigs reveal a fondness for collaboration. He's done albums with Connie Jones and Evan Christopher (both of whom appear here). This collection has none of the cohesion of a full-length partner effort, though that's not a bad thing. There's a thread of wit and weirdness — sometimes slapstick, sometimes wry and sometimes just fun — that runs through the work. And the album stands as a cabinet of curiosities with both surface sparkle and depth.
8 p.m. & 10 p.m. Wednesday, April 1
Snug Harbor, 626 Frenchmen St., 949-0696; www.snugjazz.com