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Evan Christopher: New Orleans music without the nostalgia

In late October, clarinetist Evan Christopher came to the Dakota and played tunes by Buddy Bolden, Sidney Bechet and Fats Waller.

In late October, clarinetist Evan Christopher came to the Dakota and played tunes by Buddy Bolden, Sidney Bechet and Fats Waller. Performing New Orleans-style music, often dismissed as old-timey, on an instrument that hasn’t been in vogue since the Swing Era, he kept hundreds of people glued to their seats for two hours — no break, no intermission.

Afterward, people commented, “That was the best night of music I’ve ever heard” and “I didn’t know the clarinet could be so interesting.”

Christopher returns for two more nights at the Dakota starting tonight. He’ll share the stage with pianist Henry Butler, another New Orleans legend and an eight-time winner of the W.C. Handy Award.

Born in Long Beach, Calif., Christopher began playing clarinet at age 11. He has lived in New Orleans since 1994, leaving twice for extended periods: once to join the Jim Cullum Jazz Band in San Antonio, Texas, and again in August 2005, after the levees failed. He lost almost everything when his Broadmoor neighborhood flooded. He managed to save his 1930s Selmer clarinet, but not the case.

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He plays with such passion, virtuosity and joy that you can’t take your eyes off him. And even though he’s performing traditional music, using techniques rooted in tradition (learned from mentors, other musicians, and extensive study of recorded archives housed at Tulane University — what Christopher calls “taking lessons with ghosts”), the results are contemporary, exciting and deeply personal.

This is not music you will hear blaring out of speakers along Bourbon Street. Christopher is not a preservationist. He’s proof that the music of New Orleans is still alive and evolving.

I spoke with Christopher by phone over the weekend, catching him during a break from working on a documentary film.

MinnPost: The clarinet was not the most popular instrument in the mid-1980s, when you started playing. Why the clarinet?

Evan Christopher: It was a pretty pragmatic decision. I started school early; I went into junior high the week after I turned 11. It was an instrument that suited my size. Visually, I liked the way the clarinet looked; I liked the combination of wood and metal. … Also, clarinet made sense to me. Guitar, for example, seemed like six pianos. Brass instruments have the same fingering for a lot of different notes. Something about that doesn’t make sense to me.

MP: You’ve said, “If there’s one thing I do not want my music to ever be about, it’s nostalgia.” You play traditional music on a traditional instrument. How do you avoid nostalgia?

EC: I guess I try to do it in several ways. Instead of doing repertory and tribute concerts, things that automatically tie one to a certain repertoire or certain musicians who are appreciated for their contribution to the past, I try to focus on the primacy of the moment, which to me is the more proper aesthetic for jazz.

Another way I try to do it is by working with like-minded musicians, Henry Butler being a perfect example, where “Down by the Riverside” is not thought of any differently than “Mustang Sally.” Meaning these are songs we like. We’re not saying we’re being traditional, or now we’re being contemporary. Instead, we focus on things that combine our personal aesthetic with the things that are important to us about the music culturally. One of those would be the vocabulary we use on our instruments. You’ll hear the whole history of New Orleans piano in Henry Butler’s piano style.

MP: You’re called “the Ambassador of the Clarinet.” What does that mean to you?

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EC: It depends on who’s calling me that. … Anytime you choose to advocate for a music that is tied to a specific culture, and you take that music other places, you have a responsibility to represent the culture through the music. I think that’s something ambassadors do. There’s a shortage of musicians doing that, in my opinion, especially on my instrument.

I’m benefiting from the fact that the clarinet was a very prominent instrument in early jazz. We’ve got hotels down here with murals of clarinets six stories high. In a way, it’s symbolic of New Orleans music, even more than other instruments, probably just as much as the trumpet.

MP: What do you want people to take away from your shows at the Dakota?

EC: Nothing specific. That’s the great thing about New Orleans music. There are so many different points of entry. You can enter it looking for the past. You can enter looking for something about contemporary New Orleans. You can enter it as an aficionado of jazz, or as someone just wanting to have a great time. We don’t have a preconceived idea of how the listener should engage the music. An artist tries to allow all of those things to be possible. The music ends up being more honest and fun.

Henry Butler and I have a lot of common ground. If we do all the things we’ve done together over the years we’ve known each other, we’ll have enough for two nights without repeating anything.

Evan Christopher and Henry Butler, 7 p.m. Monday-Tuesday, Nov. 16-17, Dakota ($20). 612-332-1010.

Pamela Espeland keeps a Twin Cities live jazz calendar and blogs about jazz at Bebopified. She tweets about jazz on Twitter.