Evan Christopher, arguably the world’s premier jazz clarinetist, will bring the traditional music of New Orleans to Owatonna during a Dec. 2 concert at the Owatonna Arts Center.
“I want Owatonna to be ready to celebrate the legacy of New Orleans,” a city that has provided deep and varied contributions that “continue to impact American life” over its 300 years, Christopher said. “I’m much more interested in telling New Orleans stories than Evan Christopher stories.”
Christopher, who is also a composer, in addition to playing his instrument, defines his art less as jazz and more as traditional New Orleans music.
“The protocol started in New Orleans,” then went out into the world and was marketed as jazz, which was eventually “recognized as an art form,” and jazz still infuses the way traditional New Orleans music is played in “The Big Easy,” he said. It’s “a feedback loop.”
While Christopher “started the way everyone else did” with his instrument when he was in junior high, he was “curious” about clarinet, and how it “actually should sound,” he said. “Most people don’t think about what the instrument is supposed to sound like.”
He listened to his father’s old records, attracted to musicians like Artie Shaw, Johnny Dodds, and Sidney Bechet, and the precocious Christopher won the Louis Armstrong National Jazz Award in high school. He graduated from the prestigious Idyllwild Arts Academy, continued his studies at the University of Southern California, and graduated from California State University, Long Beach.
“As an American jazz clarinetist, he has no peers, in my opinion,” said Tim Klinkner, the musician organizing the December event that will benefit the OAC and Music Boosters of Owatonna. “It’s going to be a super, super show.”
Christopher has performed previously in Owatonna, and he’s scheduled for a run of shows in the Twin Cities this month, so he offered to tack a return engagement onto his itinerary, Klinkner said. “He went over really well when he was here last time.”
Christopher, who has toured Europe often, including an extended stint in France at the invitation of the French Embassy’s Cultural Services division, said Owatonna reminded him of some of his European stops due to the “level of enthusiasm.”
In Europe, “there’s a certain openness” to culture, in general, and Owatonna offered similar “community” support, he said. Additionally, Klinkner “is always active in creating opportunities for New Orleans musicians” in Minnesota.
Beyond tour stops, Christopher has an additional connection to the “Gopher State,” with the Minnesota Orchestra. In July 2010, Christopher was able to debut his own composition, “Treat It Gentle Suite,” with the Orchestra, and the piece was the first concerto written for clarinet with band in the New Orleans style.
Christopher began composing for pragmatic reasons.
“When trying to figure out a musical problem,” the most-judicious solution is to “write things using that problem,” he said. “The best way to make it yours is to create your own examples.”
It also makes sense from a business standpoint, he said. Since the vast majority of people don’t recognize songs from 100 years ago, anyway, “I might as well use my own” music.
Christopher visited New Orleans while touring with a band after completing his schooling and was immediately smitten, but “I don’t think I realized what was so important about the city until I started spending more time there,” he said. He was enchanted by how many talented musicians populate “The Crescent City,” both young and passionate, and old and experienced.
He also appreciates how “vigilant” the city is in both “protecting their traditions and using their traditions,” he said. “There’s a unique identity in New Orleans that makes it special.”
Despite immersing himself in New Orleans music and culture for years, Christopher says, with typical humility, that he still has plenty to learn — but has no plans to stop investigating.
“Haven’t touched it, haven’t touched it,” he said, although he concedes “I’m starting to figure out the lessons” of New Orleans. Now, however, the trick is finding “the best in-roads to show that.”
“New Orleans music has always straddled a line of what’s popular with what’s important to people in the city,” he said. “It has a reputation of being entertaining music, but there’s a lot more there.”
Though Christopher has a “specific cultural focus on traditional New Orleans music stories,” his route of finding those tales is variegated, he said. For example, “one day, I’ll listen to recordings by dead people, and the next day it’ll be contemporary recordings by my peers,” but “the trick is” to “never lose focus of the problem you’re trying to solve.”
Christopher was a key part of the musical ensemble that won a Grammy Award in 2010 for a critically-acclaimed album, he appeared nightly for a three-year stretch in the 1990s in San Antonio with the Jim Cullum Jazz Band, and he’s a charter member of Jazz Composers Guild. He also spent time teaching at the University of New Orleans, a time that saw creation of a New Orleans music ensemble that performed with guest mentors such as Lucien Barbarin and Marcus Roberts.
Advance tickets for the 7 p.m. Owatonna show are $20 and can be procured at Kottke Jewelers and Tone Music, while tickets at the door will be $25, Klinkner said. “This will be a tough ticket to get,” as the OAC’s seating capacity maxes out around 100
Christopher will lead a quartet, and his three fellow players — Reid Kennedy (drums), Steve Pikal (bass), and Phil Aaron (piano) — will be the same musicians who performed alongside New Orleans jazz saxophonist Derek Douget when he visited the OAC in January 2017, Klinkner said. “All three are top-notch musicians, and they’ve become my go-to group for these shows.”
“I’m playing with some great musicians, and they’ve been so receptive,” Christopher said. Prior to any concert with other musicians, “I bring a lot of ideas,” but “we build a program out of consensus” and “what touches everybody.”
Like with Douget’s show, net proceeds will be donated to the MBO and OAC, Klinkner said. “It’s great music, and musicians love this venue.”
Reach Reporter Ryan Anderson at 507-444-2376 or follow him on Twitter @randerson_ryan.