• Shae Fontana

Mardi Gras in CT: French 75 deliver's New Orleans Jazz


French 75 is quickly becoming Connecticut’s top New Orlean’s style jazz band. The band started in 2016 with Allison Lazur (tuba) knocking on a practice room door and asking Alex Kollias (clarinet), if he wanted to start a Dixieland band. Word got around through the Hartt School and they found Seth Bailey (trumpet), and John Birt (banjo). John eventually brought in Mark Macksoud (drums). Allison came up with French 75, naming it after the traditional New Orleans cocktail (initially a WWI ammunition round). The group’s best work comes from the shared experience of just having a good time with the music.


All five members have had an extensive education in music. John Birt originally came from a traditional Irish music background, so switching to early jazz was initially a challenge, but he rose to the occasion and currently writes the arrangements for the group. Mark Macksoud studied with Tony Williams, Ed Soph, Alan Dawson, and Fred Buda. He graduated from New England Conservatory and has since performed with such acts as Cab Calloway, James Williams, Tiger Okoshi, and Bobby Watson. Alex Kollias is originally from Illinois, his undergrad was at Grand Valley State University, and he graduated from Hartt School with a masters and doctorate degrees in clarinet performance. And Allison was initially a pastry school student in NYC before ultimately deciding to return to tuba and pursuing a Bachelor's degree at the Hartt School.


We got a chance to ask them some questions about their sound, process, and where they think the genre is going.


Q: You guys have really nailed the old New Orleans jazz sound, who are some New Orleans jazz artists that inspire you and why?


A: The early Louis Armstrong Hot Five/Hot Seven recordings were our main

inspiration when we first started out. We also found a lot of inspiration from Fats

Waller, Sidney Bechet, Dr. John, and Johnny Dodds, the source of all American jazz clarinet.


Q: Connecticut is seeing a rise in emerging jazz artist; how would you describe the

music scene here? And what are some of your favorite places to play?


A: We started out mostly playing breweries around Hartford, which lead to

enough of a following to do more in New Haven, New York, and Rhode Island. We still

prefer the laid back, almost “speakeasy” atmosphere that we created in dive bars

around town. Mardi Gras, and summer festivals are always our busiest times of the year. We really enjoy any place that has an audience that wants to share in the experience of this wonderful music.



Q: Where do you see the future of jazz in today’s industry, is it making a comeback?

How do you feel it is reaching new audiences?


A: Jazz is the fundamental to all pop music and audiences are appreciating a wider array of artists and styles now that music streaming is a hit. With improvisation being a formative element, it is possible for jazz to exist outside of the present. That is what makes all variations of jazz so appealing and demonstrative for pure creativity/artistry. Each experience is unique and each performance is different. At the risk of sounding cheesy, getting to witness this kind of music is really a magical thing.


Q: Talking about playing live, how do you prepare for performances? What does a

typical practice routine consist of and are there any rehearsal routines you would

recommend to musicians starting out?


A: When we were just starting out as a band we had multiple rehearsals a week which consisted of reading down charts, experimenting with form and improvisational ideas. Now it just feels so comfortable together, we can respond to each other as one organism. Now we tend to not rehearse until just before the concert since some band members live out of state. Once we’re all together we try to harness the excitement and get a tight set list together of old favorites and new tunes that we’ve never performed.


As for live performances, we sound best once we’re all centered in and responding to each other musically (and often with a playful sense of humor). If it sounds like we’re having a party then everyone joins in the fun.


Recommendations to musicians starting out would include, practice, listen to your teachers and do not avoid failure. Music is so essential to the human spirit that we believe your heart has to be in it to be successful.


Q: Are there any albums planned for the future and where can we catch you

performing next?


A: We’re hoping to get more live video recordings to share over the next few

months. We sound best live, so it’d be great to capture some of those

moments and spread the word.


We will be performing at the Russell House in Middletown on 2/23 at 3pm, West Avon Congregational Church in Avon on 2/25 at 7:30pm and at Nick-A-Nees in Providence, RI on 3/1 at 8pm.


Q: Lastly, we always end by asking what is your favorite jazz album of all time and

Why?


A: We don't have a definitive favorite of all time, but here are some that pop into our heads!

“Money Jungle” – Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Max Roach

“Solo Monk” – Thelonious Monk

“Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet” – Miles Davis

“Undercurrent” – Bill Evans and Jim Hall

“Klezmer Nutcracker” - Shirim Klezmer Orchestra

“Djangology” – Django Reinhart and Stéphane Grappelli

“Take Five” - Dave Brubeck

"A Tribute To Jack Johnson” - Miles Davis

“Question & Answer"- Pat Metheny.



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