The first I heard of a new Irma Thomas record was through a Facebook post by legendary New Orleans drummer John Vidacovich. It was a photo of a recording studio with the simple comment, "Working on a new Irma record." That had to be well over a year ago, maybe more. Then, I think it was early last year, I was hipped to Newvelle Records, a boutique label who had just announced a New Orleans collection consisting of four newly recorded albums by Jon Cleary, Little Freddie King, Ellis Marsalis, and finally, Miss Irma Thomas.
This collection was up for pre-order at a cost of $200. There would be no individual sales. No CDs. No streaming. No MP3s.
Not even a cassingle! It was vinyl only, all or nothing.
This angered me for a number of reasons.
I wanted this music, this music that I love so much. But I could not justify $50 a pop, not for a new release. At least, not yet.
This is music by the cream of the New Orleans crop, possibly the last music recorded by three of the four artists and it needs to be heard, so why is it being held hostage?
There were no other options other than Newvelle, who gave little information on these records. There were no song titles, no real credits, no packaging details. Just a short unhelpful video. You needed to go in partially blind, money in hand...plus shipping.
I tried to put it out of my mind, but could not. I'd check the Newvelle website, Amazon, eBay. I'd Google every possible combination of artist, city and label hoping for a promising return, but always came up empty.
During this time, we lost the great Ellis Marsalis to COVID and I only grew angrier.
Unbelievably, I let it go.
Okay, I really didn't. Are you kidding? WHO AM I? I wanted this music and I didn't want to pay $200.
I check the Louisiana Music Factory's website on a somewhat weekly basis. The store needs help and I am all too happy to do my part. Right before Christmas, the Newvelle "New Orleans Collection" appeared on their "new release" page. Cost? $200.
I pulled the trigger.
This is how I justified it.
It was Christmas, so Merry Christmas to me. And I was supporting Barry and the whole LMF staff. Plus, I wanted the damn thing and I was not going to rest until it was on my shelf. Lastly, it felt a whole lot better giving Lousiana Music Factory my money than Newvelle, even though it was their product.
So how's the music?
Newvelle Records and all involved, from Ben Chace who produced the sessions, to Misha Kachkachishvili who recorded the sessions, to Alex Durkin who mastered the sessions, did an absolutely remarkable job. These are very special releases and I can no longer justify being angry.
I began with Irma.
The album is called "Love Is The Foundation" and it is everything you could want from The Soul Queen of New Orleans, who will turn 80 this year. This is a small combo recording, clean and warm, but it is not a jazz record. There is occasional brass, and a trio of female voices adding some lovely color. Miss Irma covers not one but two J.J. Cale tunes, Brook Benton, a gorgeous take of the standard "Perfidia," "Second Chance" by reggae legend Ken Boothe, and closes out with a take of one of my favorite songs of all time, "Our Day Will Come" that sent me to my knees.
Miss Irma's voice has not changed since her last release in 2008, though the live feel of the recording reveals an occasional rasp and some very mild weather on a song or two, which only adds to the charm of this album. "Love Is The Foundation" rivals anything in Thomas' career and I already feel like this purchase paid off. If you are a fan of Thomas' last two studio recordings, "After The Rain" and "Simply Grand," this will not disappoint.
Next up is Little Freddie King with "Going Upstairs," titled after a John Lee Hooker song, which is also the only cover on this set of King originals. As far as delta blues records go, this one is as good as it gets. There is nothing you haven't heard before. Freddie's going downtown. Freddie's got the blues. Freddie's looking for some women. Freddie's going to see Jesus. But what makes this special is the recording and the playing.
Backing King is his long serving band featuring "Wacko" Wade Wright and Robert Louis diTullio, with help from Nashville's Stephen Daly on second guitar and Paul Defiglia on bass. The sound of this session is both understated and in your face. I hope that makes sense. It's as if I was invited into King's living room for a private session. The groove is relentless and at times can be mesmerizing.
But the key here is, would I have dropped $50 for this record if it was available separately? The answer is no, at least not without a few cocktails in me. $50 is not a lot of money for a record in the record collecting world, but it seems wrong for something just released. Oddly enough, if the Irma Thomas was the only record available and turned up in the collectors market for $200, I'd probably jump on it sober.
Music. Damn you.
Needless to say, I am thrilled to have Freddie as part of this box, and I am thankful that it is as good as it is.
Hey, Little Freddie's essay is worth the price of admission.
If you are still with me, I thank you for that. I realize some of you saw "New Orleans" in the title and went back to your crossword puzzle, while others saw "vinyl" and took off to grease up your download fingers.
But there is more....
Next up, Jon Cleary.
I have seen Jon Cleary perform live dozens of times in various settings- solo piano, with the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, and with the "Piano, Bass and Drums" trio. All have slayed me, from the throwdown funk of the Gentlemen to the perfect late night chill of classic New Orleans covers with just Jon and a piano. All have felt like the perfect representation of why I love New Orleans. This new record, "So Swell," at least for the time being, is my new favorite representation of all that I love about New Orleans, not forgetting about such hall of famers like The Meters' "Rejuvenation" or Professor Longhair's "Crawfish Fiesta."
Recorded with the same rhythm section who backed James Booker, New Orleans royalty James Singleton on bass and the aforementioned John Vidacovich on drums, "So Swell" plays like a Cleary "Piano, Bass, and Drums" live set with a few extra notes added by the great James Rivers on sax.
Cleary covers a lot of bases here and a few knocked me for a loop...like the smokey instrumental take on Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "We're No Exception" and the gospel tent revival version of the Allman's deep Dickey cut "Pony Boy," the former, I am not ashamed to say, brought me to tears. It's an amazingly beautiful piece of music.
There are a few NOLA faves like Lee Dorsey's "Lottie Mo," the danciest, movingest, New Orleans-iest (?) cut on the LP, Lloyd Price's classic "Just Because" and the title cut, Booker's "So Swell." All big time winners. The record closes with the doo wop classic "Since I Don't Have You," and Cleary just melts all over it, which made me do the same.
I'll be honest, I haven't been this hopped up and moved since my last trip to New Orleans, and if I had heard this album before I wrote up my year-end list, "So Swell" would have been in the very top slot, with Irma & Freddie following close behind.
For those doing the math other than me, $100 each for the Cleary and Irma is a no-brainer in New Orleans vinyl speak, making the Little Freddie and the Ellis records bonuses. In reality, still not so easy to justify during these times. But I want to keep this about the music. This is some really great shit.
The last word goes to Mr. Ellis Marsalis.
Ellis Marsalis' contribution to this collection is a collaboration with his son Jason, one of New Orleans' finest drummers in a city with nothing but fine drummers. But on this release, "For All We Know," Jason is on vibes. "For All We Know" is, in a word, exquisite. When the elder Marsalis is on his own, the music is hymn-like. When Jason shows up, it's his show as much as it is his pop's, adding wonderful counter melodies to already gorgeous tunes like "My Funny Valentine," here as part of a genius medley wIth "Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen," and the title track, the standard, not the Carpenters tune.
The duo also deliver yet another take on the New Orleans staple, "Magnolia Triangle," the legendary James Black tune that has become an ice-bucket challenge of Crescent City music. "For All We Know" is not just a great record, it is one of the greatest of Ellis Marsalis' long, respected career and unless something turns up down the line, this is the patriarch's final recording. If you don't have any jazz records in your collection, or solo piano records, this could be the one, assuming you have a little bit of New Orleans love in you.
These records are world class. The pressings are quiet. The vinyl is clean. The gatefold jackets are stunning. These are some of the reasons for the hefty price tag, and now that I own it and have heard it, I can't say it's anything but justified. Comparitvely speaking, audiophiles drop $60 a pop for Mobile Fidelity Half Speed Masters all the time and those are records and CDs that are available everywhere for $5. Again, I'm talking about the music, not anyone's spending habits. This Newvelle Collection is new and exclusive and worth every penny.
I imagine we have all had that special bottle of wine, a Chateau Margaux that we didn't have to pay for, offered up at a special dinner party. Or have been gifted an equivalent meal. Eventually we might have forked up the dough for another Margaux just one time because it was so good on that night when it was free, and we needed to try it again. It may or may not have been as good as that first experience, but that wine is gone now. These four records will continue to pay off.
$200? Who am I to say what is affordable, or necessary, or extravagant? I'm only reporting. This set is one of the greatest collections of music I've heard in a very long time and if you've been reading for the last 12 years, you'd know I'd be all over it if I thought the opposite.
Newvelle did a brilliant job with all of this. I could not be happier and I do not have buyer's remorse. Quite the contrary. I'd like a Volume Two, with four different artists. And I'd like to curate it.
If you decide to pull the trigger, pull it over at Lousiana Music Factory. Please. Tell'em Sal sent ya!