by John Sinclair
New Orleans is, among many other things, the home of the Compleat Musician. Hundreds of skilled players in the city move seamlessly from rhythm & blues to traditional jazz, bebop and swing to popular musical forms of every variety, contributing their intelligence and instrumental dexterity to every situation in which they are called to perform.
Then there are those who have made their mark not only as players and singers but also as composers -- Professor Longhair, Roy Brown, Earl King, Chris Kenner, Jessie Hill -- and there are some who can do it all: Paul Gayten, Dave Bartholomew, Harold Battiste, Allen Toussaint, Mac Rebennack, great instrumentalists who write great songs, produce great records, and give great performances.
But there’s one man who works behind the scenes with the city’s greatest musical artists, songwriters and producers to frame their artistic creations and help them fully realize their concepts, turning their songs and performances time after time into hit records and all-time classics.
His name is Wardell Quezergue, known to his many fans as "the Creole Beethoven," and he’s been the first-choice arranger of New Orleans recording artists for more than 40 years. He’s the man behind the sound of so many superb recordings that it’s almost impossible to count them, but you can start with "Iko Iko" and "Chapel of Love" by the Dixie Cups, "Trick Bag" by Earl King, "Big Chief" by Professor Longhair, "Barefootin’" by Robert Parker, "It Ain’t My Fault" by Smokey Johnson, "Mr. Big Stuff" by Jean Knight, "Groove Me" by King Floyd, "Mojo Hannah" by Tami Lynn, and Dr. John’s Grammy award-winning album, Going Back to New Orleans.
Wardell’s charted local sessions for Allen Touissant, Irma Thomas, Fats Domino, The Meters, and the Dirty Dozen, and he’s added his distinctive touch to dates by Paul Simon, Willie Nelson, Wilson Pickett, the Supremes and the Pointer Sisters, B.B. King, Charles Brown, Big Joe Turner, Albert King and the Staple Singers. He did Orchid In The Storm for Aaron Neville and Good Morning Heartache for the late great Johnny Adams.
The Creole Beethoven has been particularly active on the recording scene of late. He’s garnered considerable acclaim for his work with Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown on his two big-band albums, Gate Swings and his current release, American Music, Texas Style. And he’s contributed to the Wild Magnolias’ major-label debut, Life Is a Carnival; a project with Sugar Pie DeSanto called Classic Sugar Pie; A Good Day for the Blues by Ruth Brown; Sing It!, the Grammy-nominated collaboration by Irma Thomas, Marcia Ball and Tracy Nelson; and the big-band cuts on Kermit Ruffins’ Swing This!
Wardell has been leading bands since he formed the Royal Dukes of Rhythm in the mid-’50s. In recent years he has fielded a smoking ensemble known as Wardell and his Slammin’ Big Band, an all-star aggregation showcasing his original compositions and arrangements. A 4-track "teaser" CD was issued a year ago, introducing drummer-entrepeneur Bunchy Johnson’s great Wild Indian song, "Pass It On"; the hard-swinging "3 Tenors for Moose," dedicated to WWOZ’s Don "Big Moose" Jamison; and "Frankly Speaking," Wardell’s tribute to pianist and long-time compatriot Ed Frank.
These tunes and six more songs of equal weight and delight (including two versions of Johnson’s terrific "Killer Joe" homage titled "Crazy Mary") are finally available to the record-buying public as Maestropiece, the orchestra’s premiere full-length CD on Louisiana Red Hot Records. There is sleek, swinging pop jazz ("El Pavo," "Slammin’), hip big-band bebop ("Chip"), and the wide-bottomed second-line numbers "Tippy" and "Hail King Zulu" (a definite candidate for the hallowed Carnival canon with its James Rivers saxophone excursion).
The stellar cast includes Warren Bell Sr, Roderick Paulin, Joe Saulsbury, Julius Hardy and Carl Blouin in the saxophone section; Tracy Griffin, Barney Floyd and Briian Murray among the trumpets; Craig Klein on trombone; the legendary Sam Henry on keyboards; Wardell’s son Brian Quezergue on bass; guitarists Leo Williams and Detroit Brooks; and drummers Bunchy Johnson and Leon Alexander. Quezergue’s crisp, juicy charts are well-played throughout, and the soloists make almost uniformly excellent contributions to the music.
-- New Orleans
April 24, 2000
© 2000 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved
ED NOTE: Maestropiece is available from Louisiana Red Hot Records
See the other Sinclair articles
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