Sultan of swing

American clarinetist Evan Christopher gets to the root of the music in the Hot Jazz series.

Evan Christopher 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Evan Christopher 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The next installment of this year’s Hot Jazz series offers us a blast from the joyous and swinging past. American clarinetist Evan Christopher will join forces with our very own Swing de Gitanes trio and drummer Shai Zelman on a six-date tour of the country that begins tomorrow in Rehovot, followed by shows in Jerusalem, Herzliya, Tel Aviv and Haifa.
Christopher is only 43, so his preference for one of the older forms of jazz may take some by surprise.
“What I’m looking for is to make sure that the roots of what I do are where they belong. To connect with the roots in arts, in anything, you have to look back,” he explains. “The more you look back, the more you are likely to find the depth that speaks more universally.
That’s my philosophy. New Orleans, as a music culture, offers those roots.”
The aforementioned southern American city is the cradle of jazz and the earlier genres of the art form, and Christopher signaled his love for swing-style jazz and gave note of the sincerity of his intent by relocating from his native California to New Orleans several years ago.
“There wasn’t too much in the way of roots in California,” he says, referring not only to musical exploration on the West Coast but also, as he sees it, to the prevalent approach to life there.
“There are a lot of people there looking to be successful in life, and they are conditioned by the marketplace and by what is considered to be success, but without some kind of cultural connection.”
Christopher says he was looking for something more grounded. “I think that at this point in our human history, artists need to do go for the roots. If we are, in a way, going to be a voice of reason, it’s got to be more personal. I’ve been a professional musician for over 20 years now, and so far I have had no trouble managing without doing things not connected to the music.
You have to take care of business, all musicians have to do that, but that has never been at the expense of the music.”
Christopher started learning the clarinet at 11. His preference was fueled by educational logistics, physicality and a natural instinct for the instrument. “When I was in middle school, you had to pick a wind instrument to be in the school band, and I was young for my grade and small for my age, so I went for the clarinet,” he recalls.
“Then there was just the physics of the clarinet. I kind of understood it.
I don’t really understand the trombone or the trumpet, which have the same fingering for a lot of different notes.”
The repertoire of the upcoming Hot Jazz concerts will be based around numbers played by iconic early jazz saxophonist and clarinet player Sidney Bechet. Christopher is a great fan of Bechet’s work. “I didn’t hear Bechet until I was about 16, and even then I didn’t really know him as a clarinetist and had to search for his recordings on clarinet. Most of his recordings are on soprano saxophone.”
Christopher also decided to explore what lay behind the sounds he was hearing on Bechet’s recordings. “I started reading about his life and his autobiography. I didn’t really know what it was like to be a professional musician back then. I just dug the sounds and what the musicians like Bechet did, but I didn’t really understand the environment that was associated with their music.”
Naturally, he got a better handle on the way things were when the pioneers of swing jazz were doing their thing, when he moved to the place where it all began. “I didn’t really put any of it together until I got to New Orleans. A lot of the jazz we do in New Orleans is pretty much the same music they’ve been playing here since the turn of the last century.” Despite being born way beyond the temporal confines of his eventual line of musical business, Christopher grew up in something close to jazz-only surroundings. “There sure wasn’t a lot of clarinet in the pop and rock music on the radio when I was a kid. It was only on my radar a bit because the radio station in Los Angeles embraced instrumental pop music pretty much as what we called straightahead jazz, so I got little bits of that. But I got some of that [pop] only for the same reason I liked the earlier music, and that was because of the melody.”
Then again, there was a decibel problem with the commercial side of the tracks. “When I started working, most of that kind of [commercial] music was much louder than I was comfortable with. By the time I was in college, I already knew I wasn’t into loud music. That eliminated a lot of stiff,” he says.
Hurricane Katrina caused devastation in New Orleans, including putting Christopher’s home out of action, and that led to him following the path his idol beat over half a century earlier, and he lived for a while in Paris. Bechet spent several stints in Europe and lived the last years of his life in France.
“In a way, I thought of myself as doing what Sidney did,” says Christopher, adding that he put that in a fitting musical context by recording an album he called In Sidney’s Footsteps, which he released in 2012. It also led to a project based on the music of legendary Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, which spawned the Evan Christopher’s Django à la Créole recording in 2010.
Besides providing local audiences with some toe tapping entertainment, the Hot Jazz series tour will bring some old pals together. “I met Swing de Gitanes a couple of years ago when I was first in Tel Aviv, and I really liked what they were playing,” says Christopher.
“I told them I really wanted to work with them, and Hot Jazz has made it happen.”
For tickets and more information about Evan Christopher’s concerts: January 5, Rehovot Municipal Conservatory, (08) 931-7165-6; (08) 946-7890. January 7, Gerard Behar Center, Jerusalem, (02) 623-7000; 6226. January 9, Zappa Club Herzliya, 1-700-5000-39. January 10 & 11, Tel Aviv Museum, 1-700-5000-39; (03) 573-3001. January 12, Abba Hushi House, Haifa, (04) 822-7850.