New Orleans Piano Players makes no promises or claims aside from its title. It is solely about a handful of local piano players, most of whom are not very well known outside New Orleans and even then probably only to New Orleans music aficionados or people of a certain age. None are legendary in the same sense as Professor Longhair, James Booker, or Allan Toussaint, though a few may certainly be local legends, and it's debatable how influential any one of them may be.
Given the obscurity of the musicians in New Orleans Piano Players, and the video's uneven production quality, this documentary may be most appropriate as an addition to an exhaustive collection on the history of New Orleans music. If that's the case, then it is indeed fortunate that the producers have captured a few of the performances.
The full story of New Orleans music has yet to be told. It is too vast and too rich to be captured completely, and its influence is immeasurable. The New Orleans musical "feel" is unique and distinctive, and it continues to have an irresistible power to move people to dance. New Orleans drummer John Vidacovitch has described it as like being in a canoe with someone and when they lean one way you instinctively lean the other way to compensate. You are uncontrollably rocked and you have to move. There are a few such moments in New Orleans Piano Players.
The narrator, Rickie Monie, opens and closes the video playing solo piano. His style is solid and bouncy, filled with the classic nuances of New Orleans piano playing: triplet rolls in the right hand, syncopation, hints of a second-line march, and a barrelhouse feel. Mr. Monie has on-camera comment segments sprinkled throughout the documentary and he is clearly a good educator; all of his comments are tidbits of local music history.
He introduces a segment where former bandleader Harold Defan reminisces about pianist Burnell Santiago as Mr. Defan listens to Santiago's only recording, a scratchy acetate of St. Louis Blues recorded in 1942. Though it is interesting to see Mr. Defan, an aging musician from a bygone era, and watch his reactions, he is not very articulate nor does he offer any value to this segment. It would be more enjoyable to hear the entire recording uninterrupted.
Mr. Defan says he could recognize Santiago's style and laughs about how Santiago would imitate a clarinet line on the piano. Mr. Defan says he knew the Santiago family all his life and if Mr. Defan could not get Santiago on piano for a gig, he would take Santiago's brother, Black. He said Santiago had fast fingers, "like electricity, man."
Mr. Defan does not often respond appropriately to the interviewer's questions. "What do you look for in a New Orleans piano player?" "Look for the chords ... Burnell would take his (right) hand, make monkeyshining and chord, chord, chord with his left hand."
The interviewer asks about Sadie Goodson, a piano player, and if her style has changed much over the years. Mr. Defan said it had not. Cut to Ms. Goodson, a petite, spry senior citizen, deftly pounding out You Can Depend on Me and another up-tempo song on an upright piano. This is a wonderful segment. She is a strong player and singer, and you can clearly hear elements of ragtime syncopation and barrelhouse bounce in her playing, as well as little hammer-on trills and rolls. Unfortunately there is no interview with her.
The next artist, Olivia Shaw, plays on a painfully out-of-tune little organ in her living room while singing the gospel tune, Tell Him What You Want. When asked about the relation between jazz and gospel, she simply states, "It's syncopation." She has [End Page 135] average chops and her performance is interesting in a primitive folk sort of way but it doesn't shine in the same way Ms. Goodson's does.
Monie then talks about Fats Bichon, a bandleader...