“Shallow Water, Oh Mama” and “Smoke My Peace Pipe”

Catching up with Treme just in time for a new episode tonight …

… but before any discussion of specific things in the last two episodes, being away from writing about it for a few weeks has me seeing the larger picture. The way the show has been written is really musical in the sense of a long form composition or, in jazz terms, hearing a musician’s body of work. The show is going in a particular direction and will get to an intended point, and along the way the details can be both surprising and logical. Good music and good writing make things like plot twists and spoilers irrelevant; if we’re paying attention we should be able to see where things are ultimately headed and still enjoy how we’re brought there.

This means that Davis’ political campaign, such as it was, is surprising in two different ways but completely natural. It’s surprising that he would work up the purpose to actually do the work of campaigning, but it makes complete sense in that the culture of New Orleans matters to him and he’s enough of a dilettante to be ignorant about political work to not be scared away, and then he’s exactly enough of a dilettante that when his presence actually creates sufficient noise in the system that he easily and understandably takes the slight, yet personal, political deal offered him. Same thing with Batiste offering his new, beautiful trombone to Danny Nelson.

It’s the characters who are making the music that goes into the large ensemble that tells us both what happened to New Orleans and why the city matters. People died; early we see Chief Lambreaux discovering a tribe member’s body, and now LaDonna has lost her brother due to the hurricane and the institutional indifference to human life that was both a local and federal moral crime; Janette has lost her restaurant because her insurance and SBA loan cannot be processed quickly enough; and of course people have lost their homes and cannot return to their hometown because perfectly good housing has been boarded up in order to specifically keep them away.

The developing conflict betweeen Annie and Sonny is a bit melodramatic, but there’s something in it that I appreciate, which is showing that the idea of authenticity is a shallow con and offering things that really matter. Sonny is a fraud. He can play well enough but, not being a native, cares about a meaningless fetish of authenticity, while Annie is a musician who can actually play and say things. The question is wether she can get away from Sonny enough and stop crippling her own playing. Sonny himself strikes me as a stand-in for George W. Bush in that he’s narcissistic, childish, has an ignorant idée fixe and, convinced of his mastery of the world, thinks that he has mastered his subject. And finally, he sees New Orleans as a place to party and nothing more.

The music continues to be great, although there was a painfully awkward scene in Episode 6 when Delmond and Donald Harrison are discussing modern jazz vs New Orleans traditions, which neither educated nor edified. Hectoring, lectoring, obvious and obtuse, was this Tom Piazza making a poor point, badly? Delmond already lost that argument. The best music is always the casual, almost accidental kind, like the band playing at the airport, the little bit of Zydeco while Annie is auditioning, a reminder of how great that music can be, and of course Lambreaux and his Indians. I cannot get enough of them rehearsing, singing and chanting with no other accompaniment than tambourines. It’s gripping in a primal way and is why New Orleans matters. American popular music matters, even to the dullest moneyman (what’s American Idol if not a cash machine), and the music is impossible without Louis Armstrong, and Armstrong is impossible without “Shallow Water.”


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.