Former Papa Grows Funk leader brings solo piano to NL

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Jun. 2—Summer in New Orleans? Even the humidity sweats. It's as though someone sprinkled fire ants on the sun. And all but the most pious commit heinous crimes, hoping to get sent to Hell for some blessed relief from the heat.

Which is one way of explaining that, yes, there's an excellent reason so many New Orleans and Louisiana musicians hop on the tour bus in the summer — with instructions to the driver to go as far north as possible.

"We've had great weather since March and, even though a lot of the spring season festivals have been postponed till fall, things are starting to happen here. There are a lot of outdoor things going on." John "Papa" Gros, the eminent new-generation New Orleans keyboardist, is on the phone from his Crescent City home. "But summer's coming and, in terms of the pandemic, we're finally able to get on the road. My thought was, 'Why don't I get up to New England and enjoy y'all's great weather as it starts to happen up there?'"

In that spirit, Gros (pronounced "grow") performs a solo concert at 8 p.m. Friday in New London's Hygienic Art Park. As post-pandemic activities start to increase, Gros is finally able to tour behind his March 2020 album called "Central City." It's a 10-song concept recording of sorts inasmuch as the material — covers as well as few originals — is a gloriously happy celebration of New Orleans's early rock 'n' roll, R&B and Mardi Gras carnival music.

Behind the album

"With 'Central City,' my primary goal was to recreate the sounds of New Orleans as I heard them growing up," Gros explains. "The thing is, it's such a musical city that everyone hears it a bit differently depending on where (in town) they grew up. If you're from Tremé you grew up with the brass bands. If you're Uptown, like the Neville Brothers, you've got that funk. There's jazz and R&B. Lloyd Price and Fats Domino and the birth of rock 'n' roll. And it all mixes together. I grew up in Baton Rouge and then moved to New Orleans — so all that music hit me from all sides."

Gros is a wonderful pianist — a "professor" in the parlance of New Orleans piano tradition — whose heroes include Dr. John, Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, Huey "Piano" Smith, Domino, and Price. Carefully and lovingly, Gros embraced and absorbed their styles to a level of fluency. At the same time, he also studied at the altar of Leon Russel, Randy Newman, and Chuck Berry pianist Johnny Johnson. His mastery of these styles and nuances have thus enabled Gros, over time, to impart his own stylistic DNA to the sound.

"Central City" features a carefully curated batch of tunes by Price, Irma Thomas, Alex McMurray and John Prine as well as several fine originals including "Mardi Gras," "Yeah Yeah Yeah," "Deep in the Mud" and "You Do It." And his voice and piano are richly supported by an astonishing array of local heroes including George Porter, Jr. (The Meters), Herlin Riley (Wynton Marsalis), Ivan Neville (Dumpstaphunk), Brian Stoltz (Neville Brothers), Mark Mullens (Bonerama) and many more.

"Central City" is the third Gros solo album after several years in which he led the tremendous Papa Grows Funk outfit. PGF, which broke up a few years back. That band was, along with other younger acts like Dumptaphunk, Galactic, the Rebirth Brass Band carried on the tradition of the city's original funk wizards the Neville Brothers, the Meters, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Wild Tchoupitoulas, the Wild Magnolias, and more.

Exploring the piano

The big difference between "Central City" and Gros's work with Papa Grows Funk is that, with the latter, Gros was primarily an organist rather than a pianist. The keyboard duality is nothing unusual for New Orleans — James Booker and Dr. John are the big examples — but there are perhaps bigger differences in the two instruments than are obvious.

"That's completely true," Gros says. "The keyboards have the same patterns of notes and scales, but the way they're played or express music are completely different. Piano is all about touch. You can color or soften the tone with touch and respond to the music accordingly. The organ? You're got an on and off switch, and you get the expressiveness through the draw bar, harmonics and foot pedals."

It makes sense that Gros lists some different organ influences in addition to Neville and Booker — including progressive rock star Rick Wakeman, Steve Winwood, and Benmont Tench of Tome Petty and the Heartbreakers.

"I love all these artists and more," Gros says with a laugh, "but I am who I am. The older I get, instead of adding to the toolbox of influences, I'm just trying to use the tools I have to expand my own personality."

Going solo

Gros says he's enjoying the challenge of performing solo as opposed to the fearsome lineup of Papa Grows Funk.

"This is my first solo tour, and part of the catalyst is all part of my quest to perform the New Orleans lineage," Gros says. "With the whole band, you know you can move people. Fats Domino said the trick is to BE the whole band by yourself. That's exciting to me. You could watch him or Dr. John, Allan Toussaint or Professor Longhair — and they'd play any given song 10 times and do it 10 different ways. Amazing."

Gros says the Hygienic show will feature tunes from the album, his days with Papa Grows Funk, and "a healthy dose of New Orleans classics. I'm gonna go through the deep bag of songs and see how I've done with it all."

He discusses the hours and hours he spent trying to master the subtleties and difficulties of the fingering, spaces and grooves of material like Smith's "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Blues" or Longhair's "Big Chief," "Gumbo" and "Tipitina."

"Gradually, over time, I was able to meet and play with a lot of these artists and finally get gigs and approval," Gros remembers. "The last time I was really validated, I was sitting at the piano bench with Allan (Touissant). And he told me, 'You've done your homework and you are who you are because of it.' I'd beaten my head against the wall, and he knew it, and he was welcoming me to that highway. I don't feel like I'm there yet, but it was really nice to hear."

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