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Fess Up 

Guitarist John Rankin has been playing acoustic folk, blues and jazz guitar around Uptown New Orleans for so long that it seems the city developed around him. Recently, he has been performing Tuesdays at the Columns Hotel with Tim Paco and Clarence Johnson III. His third album, Fess' Mess (STR Digital) captures what fans have come to expect from this Loyola University classical guitar instructor -- a laidback amiability, a wise take on New Orleans music, and impeccable guitar technique.

The latter is most in evidence on Rankin's version of 'If Ever I Cease to Love.' His lovely solo treatment of the Mardi Gras song nobody but Rex members know shows why the song deserves its place in New Orleans lore. His performance, like the song itself, is elegant without being stiff, ornate without being showy. Here and throughout the record, he doesn't treat songs like they need makeovers, nor are they occasions to show his stuff. Instead, he takes them seriously, and the only interpretation occurs when he adapts the songs to his voice and his guitar.

The album is unquestionably a New Orleans album, dominated by local R&B, but even though Rankin's a guitarist, he's as taken by the city's piano as anyone else. On the title tracks -- there's two -- he shows himself an attentive student of Professor Longhair, though a piano's nowhere to be found. He also adapts James Booker's 'Gonzo' for a single guitar.

Fess' Mess is not, however, a solo guitar album. Jesse Boyd and Tim Paco play bass, Johnny Vidacovich and J.J. Juliano play drums and Eric Traub and Clarence Johnson III contribute saxes and clarinet. Still, when you go to Ruth's Chris, you expect steak, and as valuable as the contributions of others are, you go to John Rankin for guitar.

One of the musical highlights of this year's Big Easy Entertainment Awards was a performance by the Panorama Jazz Band. Panorama was nominated for Best World Music Band, and to demonstrate its aptitude for dance music of different cultures, Ben Schenk wrote a new suite that was a musical rollercoaster ride through Europe's folk traditions with Theresa Andersson gamely joining on violin. The piece was daring, but the group pulled it off with craft, style and radiated good humor. Those same characteristics are found throughout Panoramaland (independent), the group's new album.

Panoramaland is smart fun, typified by 'Bolero.' With an arrangement scaled down for a small, wind- and horn-oriented ensemble, the pomp associated with the piece is missing, though it remains insistent. A trumpet solo by Patrick Farrell seems conventional until he jumps an octave and rolls off a Louis Armstrong-like trill, resolving the solo in a New Orleans mode. Here and throughout the album, Panorama Jazz Band plays klezmer, beguines and New Orleans traditional jazz in a manner that suggests the connectedness of the forms. It also takes the genres out of musty museums and reminds listeners that they are primarily dance music. The group's success is that it does both successfully without sacrificing any of the music's complexity.

One minor caveat -- just because you can fit 70 minutes of music on a CD doesn't mean you should. It seems like good value to give listeners a lot of music for their money, but at some point, showing the similarities between genres means the songs on Panoramaland run together.

Jazz Fest may be in our rear window, but the festival provides some lessons the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation might want to learn from. The organization recently created a promotional music video with Irvin Mayfield and Ingrid Lucia titled 'Do They Play Jazz in Heaven' that makes the city look prettier and cleaner than it has ever looked. In front of bright, colorful New Orleans scenes, Cafe du Monde waitresses and French Market vegetable salesmen sing along with Lucia, who is at her coquette-ish best. The song is a traditional jazz number, but a quick recollection of where the biggest crowds were during Jazz Fest -- not the Economy Hall Tent -- suggests selling the city by identifying it with traditional jazz might not be the best plan. It's the calling card the city has used for years, and it is one of the things unique to New Orleans. Still, the number of tourists at other stages suggests a lot more tourists find rock 'n' roll, R&B, jazz and funk more personally resonant. Instead of putting younger faces on trad jazz, marketing our music as a whole might reach a wider, younger audience and make the musicians who play something besides horns feel valued by city leaders.

click to enlarge On Fess' Mess, John Rankin takes New Orleans - classics seriously, and the only interpretation occurs - when he adapts the songs to his voice and his guitar.
  • On Fess' Mess, John Rankin takes New Orleans classics seriously, and the only interpretation occurs when he adapts the songs to his voice and his guitar.


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