On a hot and humid New Orleans afternoon, we reminisce of seasons past; musical gatherings and triumphs of old seeping into the wonder and fantasy of young adventure and philosophical starscapes. A treasured plethora of moments recalled through sight, sound, and mind, perhaps delving into that of an older era known to many only through media nostalgia. A summer serenade among the dew drops in. And a perfect twilight ventures into the French Quarter; love and light guiding the way through stoic backdrops of jazz legacy. Preservation and rich tradition bellows from all corners of the Crescent City. With these roots forging into the new, Charlie Gabriel’s solo album, 89, is a trip back in tribute, but also a look forward into the noir and divine majesty of one of music’s most cherished legends in the genre. To further encapsulate the auditory experience that is 89, let us first look back into the mythos and iconic story of Mr. Gabriel.
Clarinetist, saxophonist, and flutist Charlie Gabriel is a fourth-generation jazz musician from New Orleans. Raised in a classically trained musical family that emigrated from Santo Domingo in the 1850’s, Gabriel began playing clarinet professionally with the Eureka Brass Band when he was eleven years old. During World War II his father, clarinetist and drummer Martin Manuel “Manny” Gabriel often sent his son on gigs. Charlie himself became a prominent member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in 2009. I would be remiss in my journalism if I did not mention that Mr. Gabriel is a very accomplished chess player and has a wonderful video with the Preservation Hall band leader Ben Jaffe. The two have a wonderful interview and casual conversation over a chess match, which is available on the Preservation Hall YouTube page.
The opening track, “Memories of You”, paints the rainy southern landscape of beauty in solitude. Guitar harmonies and saxophone jazz serenades sparkle this uplifting noir opus that is the album 89, capturing a mixture of crisp guitar jazz theoretics and perfect brass rings compels the mind and soul throughout the album.
Following this is “Chelsea Bridge”, a 1941 compositional Jazz standard classic by Billy Strayhorn. This rendition is celebratory of its creation and displays the range and vibrato of Mr. Gabriel’s voice.
The album’s single is accompanied by a music video. “I’m Confessin’” showcases a sharp-dressed Mr. Gabriel being chauffeured around New Orleans. It also depicts behind the scenes of the writing and recording of 89, and beautiful glimpses of chess games, and bandmates laughing and hanging out. It’s a wonderful glimpse into the creative life of one of music’s most treasured geniuses.
Following the slow, heavenly tones of “I’m Confessin’” is the soothing noir love letter sounds of “The Darker It Gets”, an original song written by Charlie. The tune opens with beautifully strummed jazz chords by the record’s guitarist Joshua Starkman, with Ben Jaffe adding some walking swing dynamics on the upright bass. Charlie Gabriel’s smooth and soothing vocals warm up the mix. As I sit and listen, I am transported mentally to another time; rainy gas lantern-lit streets of New Orleans’ historic district and music clubs with black tie dress codes. A tenor sax solo brings out the sun in our adventure through a wonderful world created by Mr. Gabriel. Heard in the lyrics Charlie sings, “the darker it gets the better I see, the hidden place that’s inside of me.”
The next song on the album is “Stardust”. The 1947 Hoagy Carmichael classic brings the feel and love of the original version while adding a bit of flavor that can only come from New Orleans. Charlie has stated that of the Jazz songs he picked for this album, he never plays them the same way twice. A seasoned player in the game, he exudes musical creativity in a natural and inspiring way.
“Three Little Words” is a shift in sound as we get vibes of flamenco Jazz, cuban beats, tiki lounge, and a beautiful brass solo that will get every fan of music to the dance floor. The song was written by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar, and published in 1930. The song would go on to receive fame when it was recorded by Duke Ellington on August 26th, 1930. The musicianship and arrangement on this cover puts further emphasis on how versatile and deep the love of the genre’s history remains. The production on 89 is bright and vibrant while also feeling intimate, and gives the listener a front row ticket to the show.
At 91, Charlie Gabriel is still touring, and playing at Preservation Hall. I had the opportunity to see his performance in Jackson Square for French Quarter Fest in 2023. And without a doubt, he is on top of his game. An in-depth, unique audio experience, 89 is a glimpse into the mind and joy of an artist like no other. Should you choose to listen, 89 will illustrate a stand-out moment in time, as well as cement Charlie as a staple in Jazz. Pick up the chess match and listen to 89 for an amazing adventure.
Author: Ryan McKern