New Orleans’ ‘Hot Men’ Keep Jazz Cooking Forward

As the music critic Francis Davis writes in his Like Young: Jazz, Pop, Youth, and Middle Age , today’s business-as-usual jazz can hardly compete with rap when it comes to offering a young white audience a window on “black culture at its most esoteric and oppositional.” But the commercial drift away from jazz is more pronounced than that. An older, bourgeois audience not in love with baggy sweats and gold chains has been lured away by the exoticism and earthy good times of roots music, be it O Brother, Where Art Thou? or The Buena Vista Social Club .

So the New Orleans – based group Los Hombres Calientes has taken the sensible step of re-exoticizing jazz. That can be done without too much conceptual strain when you’re from the Crescent City and heir to the tradition of African, European and Caribbean miscegenation that gave birth to the music in the first place.

The Spanish name not withstanding, “the hot men” are two African-American gringos, Bill Summers, 54, a Detroit transplant and the percussionist in Herbie Hancock’s old Headhunters fusion group, and Irvin Mayfield, 23, a native New Orleanian, Wynton Marsalis protégé and a trumpeter with absolutely blazing chops. Five years ago, Mr. Summers, Mr. Mayfield and a third original member, drummer Jason Marsalis-Wynton’s youngest musical brother-cooked up a little mix of post-bop jazz, Latin clave rhythms and 70’s fusion (that would be the cheese in the jazz gumbo) for a fledgling New Orleans label, Basin Street Records.

The resulting album, Los Hombres Calientes , was a surprise hit. Onstage that year, they lit up the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, fomenting a cult of hometown devotion that Mr. Mayfield has likened to Deadheads-even if the young trumpeter’s personal fashion sense inclines more to silk ties and sharp suits.

The intervening years have seen three more volumes of Los Hombres, all excellent, including last month’s Vol. 4: Vodou Dance (Basin Street Records), music that was much on display at the group’s Sweet Rhythm gigs this past weekend.

In the course of the hot men’s evolution, Jason Marsalis left after Vol. 2 , which was a loss but seems to have had the effect of freeing up Mr. Summers and Mr. Mayfield to pursue the heritage side of their mission with a vengeance. For Vol. 4 , the duo embarked on an ethnomusicological odyssey to the rural outposts of Cuba, the rain forests of Trinidad, the dank slums of Haiti-the more obscure, uncomfortable or dangerous, the better, apparently-to capture the flow of African, mostly Yoruban, musical inspiration that had moved through the slave outposts of the New World before landing in New Orleans. Mr. Summers has said, “New Orleans is the last banana republic,” and he’s not talking about relaxed-fit khakis.

The duo’s approach was low-budget and improvisatory. In Trinidad’s capital city of Port of Spain, they walked into a record store, called the number on the back of an album by a local steel-pan drum group and set up a musical summit meeting on the spot. A few hours later, Mr. Summers had strung up the mikes with ropes and Mr. Mayfield had figured out the rudiments of the steel-pan drum so he could sketch out his composition on a chalkboard to the assembled 40 or so Trinidadian drummers. The result, “Trinidad Nocturne,” is one of the album’s highlights. Clearly, the hot men were in their element.

Mr. Summers, an unstoppable autodidact, never met a ritual percussion style he didn’t want to play and then lecture about. Mr. Mayfield is an unflappable virtuoso with an appetite for challenging musical settings. This is, after all, a young man with his own recording projects as a leader (witness his recent Half Past Autumn Suite on Basin Street, a commissioned 10-part suite in an Ellingtonian vein), his own jazz orchestra to lead (the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra), and his own academic affiliations to look after (he is the executive director of Dillard University’s new Institute of Jazz Culture). He is a young Wynton, all right-on ephedra.

In theory, Los Hombres are more into fission than fusion, separating out jazz into its indigenous constituent elements. In practice, Vodou Dance is a happy free-for-all. Take, for example, the short interlude of Haitian musicians groaning away on cornets that dissolves into a Mayfield original, “Vodou Love Call,” which, contrary to any folkloric or even Ellingtonian expectations (recall Duke’s faux-jungle “Creole Love Call”) is a ripe exercise in boudoir funk, Mr. Mayfield doubling on trumpet and Wurlitzer organ. Fine. If Los Hombres Calientes can replace the shopworn jazz mythology of drugs, booze and smoky dives with an Indiana Jones–style drama about the search for the African musical holy grail, I’m all for it. Passionate music demands the propitiation of dark gods. The Yoruban ones work as well as any.

In New Orleans, of course, exoticism worthy of an Hombres Calientes field recording can be found right at home. Some of those volatile Afro-Cuban spirits have migrated over to the Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans African-Americans (some with Indian blood, some not) who for generations have enlivened Mardi Gras with costumes that suggest traditional Native American dress as reinterpreted by George Clinton. More to the musical point, the Indians’ rhythmic grooves have influenced the development of the city’s distinctive funk and R&B sound.

On the new Mr. Stranger Man (Shanachie), Crescent City notables like Dr. John and Cyril Neville join forces with Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and the Golden Eagles, apparently the baddest Indians in the music business, judging by the pounding, sanguinary music. Try “The Battle of New Orleans” for an alarming tale of musical gang warfare, two Mardi Gras bands going at it on that “bloody day down in New Orleans.”

Resolutely unexotic is the recent The Marsalis Family: A Jazz Celebration (Marsalis Music/Rounder), which manages to pack a lot of Crescent City musical and family history into one disc. On the occasion of Ellis Marsalis’ retirement from the music faculty of the University of New Orleans, a send-off concert was organized that brought together onstage for the first time in recorded history the entire musical family: father Ellis on piano and sons Wynton on trumpet, Branford on saxophone, Delfeayo on trombone and Jason on drums. Ellis neglected to sire a bass player, but Roland Guerin serves admirably.

Frankly, I wasn’t expecting too much. A musical family reunion with minimal rehearsal time seemed to promise a bunch of loose, raggedy readings of standards that might be fun, or awkward, for the participants, and not much of anything for the CD buyer. I was wrong. It’s a lovely album of, yes, standards heavy on the New Orleans-including “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” and a “Saint James Infirmary” sung by Harry Connick Jr.-and Ellis originals, with everyone in superb form. The noble tradition of Crescent City musical combat is served by Wynton and Branford jousting on Branford’s tune, “Cain and Abel” (just in case we hadn’t followed that sibling rivalry for the past two decades).

But for the most part, the competition is to see who can sound the most relaxed, the most thoroughly at home. Ellis wins. His muscular touch and economical phrasing sound incredibly hip, never more so on his original, “Twelve’s It,” with his left and right hand trading solos as if they belonged to different piano players. Nothing is forced, every note counts-a reminder that the cardinal New Orleans musical virtue is making things sound easy, especially when they’re not.