There are those who hear a clarinet and, no matter how virtuosic the playing, assign it to throwback status, back with ragtime or other forms of New Orleans music that have faded into novelty or nostalgia. But not Evan Christopher. He moves the instrument through classic New Orleans jazz (which he says is a misnomer, but we'll get to that later) into more contemporary settings, playing with an uncanny sense of mood and tone. On his 10 albums as a bandleader (he's appeared on over 30 as a sideman), Christopher frames his warm, expressive tone with classic Big Easy shuffles, bluesy after-hours ballads and the occasional hint of Latin jazz, shining in whatever format he chooses to use. But it's such an authentic sound that it's hard to believe that Christopher, now nearing 50, didn't visit New Orleans until the mid-90s.
"I was on a tour with a California group, and when we passed through New Orleans on tour I had a few days off," he says. "And I met so many great musicians around my same age playing traditional New Orleans music. They were very welcoming. The protocols about sitting in and hanging out were very relaxed, and everything seemed so close. You could go to three or four different clubs in an evening without having to drive 45 minutes between them. The environment, the scene, they were all unlike anywhere I'd ever been. It seemed like the perfect place to go for what my interest was at the time."
Thus began Christopher's journey down Clarinet Road, the name of two of his solo albums (Vols. 1 and 2) and the phrase he uses to describe his aesthetic. Fittingly, he borrowed that phrase from one of the all-time greats on his chosen instrument.
"When I first met Tony Scott, the bebop clarinet player, he autographed a picture of himself backstage at Carnegie Hall with Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday, and he signed it, 'Good luck on Clarinet Road ... lots of curves!' So Tony gifted me that idea: There will be lots of curves, and the music will take care of you if you take care of it. You never know where it's going to lead you."
Christopher realized that that phrase could apply to just about anything within his musical scope. "I think it seemed like a good way to describe my project without having to be too redundant about what I do," he says. "I don't have to say 'Clarinetist Evan Christopher's Clarinet Road.' It's just kind of already taken care of. It can be the name of a band, my publishing company, anything having to do with my career and all the curves it encompasses."
One of the curves he's been working on since beginning his solo recording career in 1998 is the way the clarinet, and New Orleans music in general, are viewed by the general public. It's something he strives to change not just with music, but with education, as well.
"The clarinet has a stigma of being relegated to more traditional forms of music," he says. "Not just in the US, either. There's a rich tradition from the French West Indies, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey, as well. "In all of these examples it ends up having a voice that speaks more from yesterday, and traditional New Orleans music itself has a certain stigma. Some people still don't recognize New Orleans music as having its own culture and a value system around the music. They think of New Orleans music as a type of jazz instead of the other way around, instead of jazz coming from what people were doing in New Orleans."
It's a bold statement Christopher is making here, but he's passionate about how the Big Easy's musical culture has acted as a foundation for many other forms of music, including his own. "New Orleans music is the stepping off point for what I'm trying to do," he says. "The danger is getting too academic about it but you always have to do a little bit of explaining for people so they'll understand where you're coming form. As much as I want Sidney Bechet to be a household name, it didn't work that way. So what's been fun is trying to find engaging ways to introduce the characters and stylists and artists to people in a way that helps you to clarify the connections you're trying to make to them, and to help fan the flame of the music in a way that might make hearing it more meaningful."
Part of the way Christopher has tried to bridge that gap is through teaching. He constantly instructs and runs workshops for youth and adult clarinet players throughout New Orleans. "The goal is to tell stories about what makes the traditions so interesting and specific to the city," he says. "And to talk about the parts of New Orleans culture that made those traditions possible and gave them their potency. At the end of the day I want it to be more than an interesting way to play the clarinet. I want the music to have potency by making it clear that an important part of the New Orleans aesthetic is having your own voice."