You never know where pianist Tom McDermott will go haring off to next. That’s because he often hasn’t a clue, either. A daring and inventive improviser, he’s more than willing to go striding (or ragging or rumba-ing or tango-ing) through doors that lead who-knows-where. In the middle of a Scott Joplin piece, he might find an opening that leads straight to James Booker and start mixing the rag’s more straitlaced syncopation with the saucy funk of New Orleans R & B.
For the next tune on the program, he might offer up a lovingly skewed take on a Beatles song, turn a Sousa march into a second-line parade, or reveal secret connections between Chopin’s chromaticism and the blues tradition. Even better, it might be a McDermott composition in the style of a melancholic French musette or a (rom)antic Brazilian choro.
McDermott has earned a well-deserved reputation as one of New Orleans’ most adept pianists, well grounded in the history of various musical styles and unafraid to toss it all up in the air just to see where it might come down.
Riding on glowing reviews for his latest release, Almost Native (Threadhead Records), McDermott will bring his unpredictable self to the Outpost on Friday for an eclectic evening of solo piano.
Well-respected as an improviser, McDermott is also getting noticed for his voice as a composer. Almost Native—to the great pleasure of friends who have been hounding him for years—features only originals, nine by McDermott and two from the spellbinding clarinetist Evan Christopher, who duets with him on all but two of the tracks.
With a particular fondness for the lugubrious, the ambiguous and the hilarious, McDermott’s compositions reveal a deep and unabashed romanticism that never stumbles into sentimentality. While he favors brevity, he does not shortchange on expression.
From the jungle lushness of “Tango Ambiguo” to the centrifugal intoxication of the musette “La Manège Rouge” (“The Red Merry-Go-Round”), which could have been written for an early Truffaut film, to “The Don’t-Mess-With-My Two-Step,” a deliciously goofy subversion, McDermott roams over a wide landscape of musical forms and intentions.
His melodies stick in your head, and he’s not entirely sure where they come from. “They might just pop into my head, and I go to a piano, and that’s very exciting when that happens,” he says. “I find that really I just have to get a rhythmic cell that I find is interesting. Once you get an opening phrase, the rest is math, as someone once put it.”
McDermott the improviser ornaments melodies and rhythms alike with a rococo flair and goes careering off at delightfully unexpected and eccentric angles to the main line—often at death-defying speeds. Is that a curve ahead? Hit the accelerator!
“I think the trick is, if you go off on a tangent, just to have the knowledge to get back to where you need to go,” says McDermott. “So, yeah, you’re allowed to go off on a path, but it’s almost like you just need to make sure you have the right compass to get back. That’s one way to look at it, and I like people who do that—even if it means making mistakes. I’d rather hear that.”
McDermott’s compass is pretty reliable—sometimes magical. You’ll get back, and you might be astonished at how you got there. With McDermott at the piano, you can count on surprises.