Pianist Jan Luley is from North Hesse, Germany, while Thomas L’Etienne — his duet partner for much of the new Boonoonoonous — hails from Hamburg. That couldn’t, it would seem, be further from the Creole mysteries of New Orleans with its bubbling gumbo of Caribbean, French and African-American influences. And yet both men, as heard on this stirring collaboration, have embraced the sounds of boogie woogie and of Dixieland and of gospel and traditional jazz as if they grew up on the slanted sidewalks of Bourbon Street.
The layered “Barracao,” which rushes forward then stops to collect itself only to charge on again, offers great insight into the foil that L’Etienne will quickly become. Luley, who over a 30-year career in music has proven himself a master of boisterous stride musings, is lured into some of his prettiest asides. The song’s complexities are masked by a gentle emotional sway.
“New Orleans Joys,” the first of four Jelly Roll Morton tunes, finds Luley along again, using both hands to engage in a high-stepping moment of elation. You almost smell the bubbling roux. Luley’s original “Blues Pour La Menthe” finds L’Etienne – a former resident of New Orleans with French roots – returning to great effect. They twirl and sway in lock-step, as if wrapped in the lacey drapes of a Mississippi River breeze – then each takes a delicately romantic turn at the fore. “En Ti Punch” skips as fast as that last one swooned, bursting out with a swamp’s wink. Luley then begins a series of blindingly fast runs, each as precise and yet as jubilant as can be, only to be answered by L’Etienne’s own joyous outbursts of delight.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Sidney Bechet song “Petit Fleur” provides a perfect platform for L’Etienne’s next excursion, as Luley girds everything with a lyrical stoicism. That allows L’Etienne an opportunity to draw duskier colors from his clarinet before opening up his horn during the song’s middle section – but only ever so briefly. The track ends, as it began, with both men tangling and untangling around a heartbreaking theme. Luley returns to the spotlight for Morton’s “Mamanita,” which as its title suggests, has a pronounced Spanish tinge.
L’Etienne returns for “Winin’ Boy Blues,” providing a smart juxtaposition for Luley’s muscular groove. His warm, breathy responses eventually give way to a vocal that expertly mimics the sweetly unfettered self-centeredness of a small child’s world view. Luley’s solo is among his most completely realized, sounding at times like a rolling river and at others like the sharp retorts of a lightly annoyed parent.
“Mettez I Dehro,’ another Luley showcase, begins with on a note of quiet reminiscence before ramping up toward a spritely clip. As Luley unleashes run after fizzy run, he’ll absolutely leave you breathless. L’Etienne returns for a Luley-arranged run through the old Crescent City warhorse “When The Saints,” which commences with an appropriately dark gospel-tinged piano interlude. L’Etienne doesn’t so much lighten this atmosphere, as give it new depths: He’s never sounded more heartbroken.
“The Crave,” Luley’s last update from the Morton songbook, arrives with a witty sense of mystery. Luley’s ability to make bold statements on the one hand, and then to answer just as impressively with the other, is shown in high relief. That opens the door for the album’s sun-streaked title track, derived from the Creole patois for “wonderful.” And wonderful, it is. Together one last time with D’Etienne, they tumble end over end in a kind of childlike glee. This is the sound of happiness, put to music.
Luley concludes Boonoonoonous with a final original, and a final turn at the piano alone. With a format like that, not to mention a title like “Solace,” you might be expecting a farewell rumination. Instead, Luley says goodbye with a hope-filled moment of quietude.
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