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Don Vappie & Jazz Creole

The Blue Book of Storyville

by Ian Mann

December 07, 2023


A highly accomplished album. It’s immaculately recorded and the playing is uniformly excellent, particularly from the front line soloists.

Don Vappie & Jazz Creole

“The Blue Book of Storyville”

(Lejazzetal Records LJCD22)

Don Vappie – banjo, vocals, David Horniblow – clarinet, Dave Kelbie – guitar, Sebastien Girardot – double bass

New Orleans native Don Vappie is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, playing banjo, guitar and double bass. Although he has played bass with jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis he is best known as a virtuoso on the tenor banjo, which constitutes his instrumental focus on this, his seventh album as a leader. Three of Vappie’s albums feature his New Orleans based group the Creole Jazz Serenaders.

“The Blue Book of Storyville” features Jazz Creole, an international quartet that includes the English rhythm guitarist Dave Kelbie, also the proprietor of the Lejazzetal record label, and the Franco-Australian bassist Sebastien Girardot.

However these are musicians who go back a long way. Kelbie and Girardot were long time members of the group Django a la Creole, led by New Orleans clarinettist Evan Christopher. The Jazzmann web pages include a number of album and live performance reviews by this band, credited under the artist name ‘Evan Christopher’.

A particularly memorable live show by Christopher’s Django a la Creole group took place at Huntingdon Hall, Worcester in March 2014, when Christopher, Kelbie and Girardot were joined by Don Vappie on banjo, guitar and vocals. I remember being hugely impressed by Vappie’s contribution, and particularly his virtuoso playing of the often maligned banjo. My review of this remarkable performance can be found here;

Born into a musical family Vappie sees himself as preserving New Orleans Creole Culture, turning down the offer of the guitar chair in Peggy Lee’s band to remain in his home city. He’s recorded with New Orleans legend Dr. John in addition to collaborating with African musicians such as ngoni player Cheik Hamala as part of his investigations into the roots of New Orleans Creole music.

“The Blue Book of Storyville” was conceived as a celebration of the tri-centenary of the founding of New Orleans by a Group of French colonists in 1718. It celebrates Creole culture through a programme of seventeen pieces ranging from traditional songs through tunes associated with jazz pioneers such as Jelly Roll Morton and Kid Ory to a clutch of original songs penned by Vappie, among them the title track.

Of the original pieces Vappie says;
“I really wanted to advance the banjo into a more melodic role as I perceived it was in some African and Caribbean styles”.

A well presented album brochure includes liner notes by the American broadcaster Nick Spitzer that include insights into each individual track, including Vappie’s originals. Given that the album represents a tri-centenary celebration these informative accounts help to put the songs into their historical perspective.

Things kick off in lively fashion with the traditional Creole singalong “Eh la bas”, a title translating as “Hey, Over There!”. It’s a song that has variously been recorded by Kid Ory, Fats Domino and banjo player and raconteur Danny Barker. Driven by the vigorous rhythms of Vappie, Kelbie and Girardot the call and response French language lyrics are augmented by a clarinet solo from David Horniblow, who trained as a classical musician before turning his attentions to jazz and its related musics. Vappie also features as an instrumental soloist, giving a brief demonstration of his virtuosity on the banjo.

Title track “The Blue Book Of Storyville” is a historical account of New Orleans’ infamous, but totally legal, red light district, Storyville, which was eventually closed down in 1917. The ‘Blue Book’ was a guide to the various houses of prostitution, institutions that also housed musical entertainers such as the ‘piano professors’,  most notably Jelly Roll Morton. Vappie’s lyrics and vocals provide an evocative glimpse into a bygone era and the music sounds authentically vintage, with Horniblow’s wailing clarinet solo complemented by the chugging rhythms of banjo, guitar and double bass.

Morton’s “Buddy Bolden’s Blues”, written in honour of the legendary cornettist, is one of the best known songs in the New Orleans canon. Vappie introduces it with a virtuoso passage of unaccompanied banjo before moving on to sing the familiar lyrics as the rest of the band join in. Horniblow is the other instrumental soloist as he swoops and soars on bluesy clarinet.

“La Ville Jacmel” is a traditional song that founds its way to New Orleans from Haiti, the title referencing a port town on Haiti’s south coast. The song is also known as “Panama-m tombe” (translating as “My Hat Fell Off”) and this phrase can be heard during Vappie’s rendition of the French language lyrics. Rhythm guitar and double bass support the leader’s virtuoso banjo picking, with Horniblow only joining the party towards the close.

The Vappie original “Port Bayou St. John” is named for a town on the French Caribbean island of St. Lucia. Partly inspired by the Neville Brothers, who grew up in the same New Orleans neighbourhood as Vappie, the song combines rock power chords with a fast tresillo rhythm, originating from Cuba. A lively, catchy instrumental piece it fits in well within the context of the album as a whole and incorporates some exhilarating soloing from Vappie and Horniblow.

“Mo pas laime ca” is a traditional New Orleans Creole song that was recorded by Danny Barker and clarinettist Albert Nicholas in 1947. Their modern day counterparts, Vappie and Horniblow shine on this contemporary version. The French language lyrics represent a litany of dislikes concerning the physiology of a variety of women – political correctness wasn’t a ‘thing’ at the time that many of these bawdy songs were written.

Vappie’s original “Couleur de Creole” is an instrumental that combines the sounds of early New Orleans jazz with the Pixinguinha style from Brazil, which represented a parallel development. It represents another example of Vappie searching for the roots of Creole music. The performance features more virtuoso playing from both Vappie and Horniblow, each impeccably supported by the rhythm team of Kelbie and Girardot.

Written by pianist, vocalist and songwriter Spencer Williams “Basin Street Blues” is a staple of the New Orleans jazz repertoire. Vappie sings the English language lyrics, which will surely be familiar to most jazz listeners, as well as delivering some sprightly banjo picking alongside fellow soloist Horniblow.

There’s more virtuoso banjo playing on the Vappie original “I Would If I Could”, a lively, upbeat love song with an English language lyric. The piece is also enlivened by Horniblow’s incisive clarinet soloing and Girardot’s cameo on double bass..

The song “Abandon” was written by LouLou Boislaville from Martinique, but because the tune was never copyrighted its composer is listed as ‘traditional’. An instrumental written in waltz time it’s one of the most reflective items on the record and represents another example of the remarkable chemistry between Vappie and Horniblow, with both delivering some exceptional playing.

“C’est l’autre CanCan”, also known as “Creole Song”, was written by trombonist Edward ‘Kid’ Ory, a musician who started out as a banjo player. Ory, a French speaker, did much to bring Creole culture to early New Orleans jazz and this performance sees Vappie singing the lyrics in French.

The song “Red Wing”, written by Kerry Mills, has its roots in Anglo-American folk music, another component in the music of New Orleans. Vappie has also played bluegrass and country music and this jazz flavoured instrumental version is a showcase for his virtuosity, with Horniblow and Girardot also being featured.

The traditional song “Mischieu Banjo” (literally “Mr. Banjo”) is a traditional Creole song dating back to the 1830s. Here it features Vappie’s spoken word introduction,  explaining the history of Creole culture and outlining the story of the dandy character “Mischieu Banjo”. The song itself is sung using the French lyrics, with instrumental features for Vappie and Girardot.

“Tin Roof Blues / Creole Blues” is a segue of two popular songs associated with New Orleans. The first was written by members of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and has been played by Kid Ory, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet among others. Introduced by a passage of unaccompanied banjo it’s another tune that will be familiar to many jazz listeners. It segues seamlessly into the traditional “Creole Blues”, another tune recorded by Danny Barker and Albert Nicholas at that famous 1947 session. Vappie sings the lyrics in French and there’s some terrific clarinet soloing from Horniblow.

The clarinettist also impresses on the lively instrumental “Panama”, a tune written in 1912 by William H. Tyers.

“Les Oignons” is another traditional tune and one that featured on that famous Barker / Nicholas 1947 session. It was also recorded by Sidney Bechet. Vappie and the band deliver a good natured rendition with the leader singing in French. It’s also the vehicle for some virtuoso banjo picking and Horniblow clarinet solo, all paced by the impeccable rhythms of Kelbie and Girardot.

The album concludes with yet another traditional Creole song, “Fais Do Do”, translating as “Make Sleep”. It’s a gentle Creole lullaby, presented here as a solo banjo and vocal performance, with Vappie singing the lyrics in French.

Originally released in 2019 but only acquired by the Jazzmann fairly recently “”The Blue Book Of Storyville” has been very favourably reviewed elsewhere and has been the recipient of numerous ‘album of the year’ awards.

Like all of Dave Kelbie’s productions for Lejazzetal it’s immaculately recorded and the playing is uniformly excellent, particularly from the front line soloists Vappie and Horniblow. Vappie also impresses with his vocals and all in all it’s a very classy package with a well chosen selection of songs that will appeal to a good many listeners. Vappie’s originals stand up well alongside the more traditional items and he represents a great ambassador for New Orleans music and for Creole culture.

To be honest it’s a bit too ‘trad’ for my personal tastes but it’s still a highly accomplished recording, with Spitzer’s sleeve notes adding to the listener’s enjoyment with their explanations of the historical context and the lyrical content of many of the songs.

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