I chatted the following day with McDermott at the funky Coffea Coffeehouse Gallery and music venue in the Bywater district. McDermott, who has lived, played and recorded music in New Orleans for 23 years, recently signed his first record deal-the first CD he is not paying out of his pocket to produce-with jazz label Arbors Records. This duet album, with cornetist Connie Jones, will be released February of 2008.
JazzReview: I’d like to first talk about your most recent effort with Connie Jones. Obviously you have a lot of respect for Connie.
Tom McDermott: I feel he’s very undervalued.
JazzReview: So, how did this project come about and how did you choose the repertoire for the album?
Tom McDermott: I just realized that Connie has not put out a good CD (in a while)-he’s 73 years old. He’s put out CDs and LPs over the years with his Dixieland band. That means 20% Connie at most, because everybody else solos. It’s just very diluted. I wanted a concentrated recording to show what he could do before it’s too late. He feels like his chops have gone down a bit, but I think I got him before that happened. The repertoire-initially I was paying for this-but I ended up selling it to a record label, Arbors, but initially since I was paying for it, I thought I would like to have a lot of my music on it. That’s about the only way I’m going to get my music out there until somebody else decides to record it. Therefore, we have seven of my pieces on (the new CD). I think it’s a good idea to have a couple tunes everybody knows. So I’ve put "Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?" and "Sleepy Time Down South," which is a Louis Armstrong tune that all trumpet players do. There’s a kind of famous duet with Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver on "King Porter Stomp." I love Gottschalk’s music and record it when I can, so we did "Danza." There are 15 tunes in all What it boiled to was slow stride, fast stride, tango-we have two tangos on there, a kind of New Orleans rumba thing. Actually, we took a Chopin nocturne and "rumba-sized" it. There’s also "Tishomingo Blues."
JazzReview: So you grew up in St. Louis. What got you interested in jazz playing? Tell me a little about your background.
Tom McDermott: I entered through ragtime. My mother plays piano still. I liked hitting on the keys. So I asked to take lessons. In fact everybody in our family, five brothers and sisters, plays music, or did when we were kids. I took lessons with my mom, and my mom’s sister, who is also a fine pianist. Then around age 13 the Scott Joplin revival started up, and I got into it right before the movie, The Sting, came out. It was like the tipping point. But before that for a couple of years there were people like Gunther Schuller and Joshua Rifkin who were putting out beautiful Joplin albums, but in fact were heard by the producers of The Sting, and so they decided, ‘Let’s use this,’ even though the movie is set in the ’30s. It’s not really time-appropriate, but the music was so fresh. There was also a great radio show on KWMU every week called "Ragophile." The fellow with the world’s largest piano roll collection was the host-the authority on ragtime, stride, Jelly Roll and all that-so I heard all that when I was 13-14 years old.
JazzReview: So it had a big impact on you?
Tom McDermott: I fell in love with Jelly Roll and James P. Johnson at an early age. Art Tatum took a while. He scared me. I remember not getting Gershwin.
JazzReview: And, of course, later, you became interested in Brazilian music and the danzas. When did your fascination with that begin?
Tom McDermott: It started in 1984. I moved to New Orleans that year and I got a gig playing on the steamboat. A tourist came up and heard what I was playing and said, ‘Do you know Ernesto Nazaré’s music?’ And I said, ‘No I don’t.’ And he said, ‘You should check it out.’ I bought a couple of LPs when I was in London at Herrods, which has everything as you know. Also at that time, a friend who had just been down to Brazil gave me a cassette tape of some good stuff-Pixinguinha, Dominguinhos-all these people who I now know a lot about. Then in 1989, David Byrne’s Beleza Tropical came out. That made a huge impact on me. After that I knew I had to go down there and check it out. So I made my first trip in 1989.
JazzReview: Have you recorded in Brazil?
Tom McDermott: (My album) Choro do Norte was recorded with Brazilian musicians down there. And then I added the American musicians here in New Orleans. So it’s a true bi-continental recording, although I never said that in the liner notes. You don’t want to promote artificiality.
JazzReview: That version of (Jelly Roll Morton’s) "Sweetheart of Mine" is really great with the pandeiro.
Tom McDermott: It really sounds like a choro to me.
JazzReview: How did your Live in Paris album come about?
Tom McDermott: I was awarded a residency along with two other musicians by the French American Cultural Exchange. It was a Katrina sympathy gig, basically. They let us just go and hang out. They really didn’t set up that much for us. We found a little work and taught a bit. They paid our ticket, gave us a lump sum of money and a place to stay. So it worked out. Evan (Christopher) and I found some other work.
JazzReview: How long were you there for?
Tom McDermott: I was there January-February. Then I came back for Mardi Gras actually. And then I went back for another month because I had set up some gigs.
JazzReview: Do you have anything else coming up? I know you appeared on (New Orleans sousaphone and bass player) Matt Perrine’s new album Sunflower City.
Tom McDermott: I’m only a minor part of that album, but I’m happy to be on it. I’ve had a long-standing idea for a duets album and I’ve recorded about 13 tracks, but I think I’m happy with only seven or eight of them. So, it’s just taken a long, long time to get that out.
JazzReview: Are those originals?
Tom McDermott: Maybe half are originals. All the Keys and Then Some (a 24-piece suite for the piano and originally released in 1996) will be reissued in February (by Parnassus Records). So after five albums that I basically paid for, the next two albums will be with other people’s money. I’m very happy. It was a goal of mine, and not easy to do these days. I feel like I’ve earned it. I’m almost 50 and I don’t want to pay for my own albums anymore I’m on the same label with Dave McKenna and Dick Hyman, my two living piano idols.