Many New Orleans residents no doubt know of French due to his twice-a-week program on non-profit radio station WWOZ, during which he shares his love of what Marsalis calls "one of the only cities in our country with its own music." Beyond his exposure on local radio, though, French embodies much of the recorded history of New Orleans jazz as he leads one of its oldest bands, The Tuxedo Band, which got its start in 1909. Despite his initial disdain for traditional New Orleans jazz due to its "corniess," French became a believer when he actually had to play the music as a teen. Assuming leadership of The Tuxedo Band from his father, Albert French, Bob French’s reputation grew in stature to the point that he influenced an entire generation of New Orleans musicians. Two of those protégés include Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr., whom he knew since they were young children and who join him on Marsalis Music Honors Bob French.
The song selection on the CD is French’s, and he considered it with great care so that, within its relatively brief time span of 76 minutes (compared to the wealth of available New Orleans jazz material). So, while he rarely plays "When The Saints Go Marching In" any longer, having tired of requests for it at every performance, he includes it anyway. Ending the CD with "The Saints" the same way that he starts it with "Bourbon Street Parade" that is, with his own set-up of the mood in four measures of drum intro, French incorporates the unmistakable New Orleans rhythms into the music that have captured the imaginations of countless listeners, tourists and musicians throughout much of the twentieth century. As suggestive in its visual imagery as it it in its musical importance, the traditional jazz of Marsalis Music Honors Bob French remains true to its roots, carrying on the culture of the Crescent City into the millennium in spite of the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina. The music, as ever, endures.
On "Bourbon Street Parade," French provides the vocals, as well as the drumming, before the instrumentalists take their solos. In accordance with the Marsalis Music Honors mission, the honored legend is joined by several talented musicians who are just at the starts of their jazz careers. In this case, that includes trumpeter Leon Brown and trombonist Troy Andrews, whose swing and ease belie their relative inexperience in comparison to a veteran like French or even Marsalis. Brown’s solo captures attention with its bright assertiveness, entirely within the spirit of the music, and the joyousness of his playing continues through the album, particularly with his extroverted work on "Way Down Yonder In New Orleans."
French brings in two of the members of his working band, bassist Chris Severin and vocalist Ellen Smith, who in particular creates a sense of excitement at the final turnaround of "Basin Street Blues." Ironically, Connick does not sing, modestly providing accompaniment throughout the CD for the mentor who recommended to Connick’s father that Ellis Marsalis teach him jazz piano. Still, Connick’s presence is felt, particularly when he solos, staggering the beat, smashing bass notes and crafting a chorded chorus on "Basin Street Blues." It goes without saying that Branford Marsalis provides eloquent, finely articulated solos whenever he performs, especially his soprano sax lead on "Burgundy Street Blues."
Bob French may not be a name that jazz enthuasiasts outside of New Orleans recognize. However, locally, he is one of the true surviving legends of the traditional jazz, a link in the chain that connects the music through successive generations. It is fitting that Marsalis Music has chosen to bring more attention to French, who has helped inspire scores of New Orleans musicians through mentoring. As a result, he has contributed to the development and success of numerous instrumentalists as they have spread the joy of the music throughout the world.