88 year-old Charlie Gabriel is a New Orleans-born and-based saxophonist, clarinetist and vocalist, who has had an incredibly lengthy music career: Gabriel’s first professional gig was back in 1943, sitting in for his father in New Orleans’ Eureka Brass Band. As a teenager, he relocated to Detroit, where he played with Lionel Hampton, whose band at the time included a young Charles Mingus. Gabriel then spent nine years with a group led by Cab Calloway drummer J.C. Heard.
For a period of time, Gabriel fronted a bebop group. He has also played with or toured with Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Aretha Franklin and a lengthy list of others before joining the legendary New Orleans jazz ensemble Preservation Hall Jazz Band in 2006. Since then, Gabriel, the most senior member of the group has developed a tight musical relationship with creative director, bassist and tuba player, Ben Jaffe, the son of the group’s co-founders Allan and Sandra Jaffe.
Gabriel signed to Sub Pop Records, who will be releasing the jazz legend’s full-length debut as a bandleader 89, which is slated for digital release on February 25, 2022 and a July 1, 2022 physical copy — CD/LP, etc. — release, a few days before his 89th birthday.
Although he’s faced plenty of challenges over the course of his almost eight decade music career, none likely rank with the death of his brother and last living sibling Leonard to COVID-19. For the first time ever, Gabriel put down his horn, filling his days and weeks instead with dark reflection, a stubborn yet understandable despondency broken now and then by regular chess matches in the studio kitchen of Pres Hall leader Ben Jaffe, who was working overtime to bring his friend and bandmate some light.
One of those afternoons also included guitarist Joshua Starkman, who was sitting off in a corner playing his guitar and half-watching Jaffe and Gabriel play chess from a distance. When Charlie returned the next day, he brought his saxophone. “I was just inspired to try it, to play again. It had been a long time, and a guitar makes me feel free. I do love the sound of a piano, but it takes up a lot of a space, keeps me kind of boxed in.”
“We had no particular plan, or any particular insight on what we were gonna do. But we were enjoying what we were doing, jamming, having a musical conversation,” Gabriel adds, further musing, “Musical conversations cancel out complications.”
Interestingly, that day wound up being the first session for 89, almost entirely the work of Gabriel, Jaffe and Starkman, recorded mostly in the kitchen by Matt Aguiluz. Charlie Gabriel plays tenor sax and clarinet on the album, Starkman plays guitar and Jaffe plays bass, drums and keys throughout the album.
The album’s material includes six standards, including “Stardust,” “I’m Confessin'” and “Three Little Words,” which the New Orleans legend describes as “standard material that every musician, if they’re an older musician like myself, will have played throughout their career. Every time I play one of these tunes the interpretation is a little bit different.” The album also includes two originals written by Gabriel, “Yellow Moon” and “The Darker It Gets” — and while being Gabriel’s debut, it also marks a return to his first instrument, clarinet on many of the album’s tracks. “The clarinet is the mother of the saxophone,” he says. “I started playing clarinet early in life, and this [taught me] the saxophone.”
89‘s first single sees Gabriel and his bandmates play a gorgeous and utterly charming rendition of the old standard “I’m Confessin.'” Centered around a subtle re-arrangement for jazz guitar, clarinet, saxophone and bass, Gabriel’s version to my ears manages to meet Peggy Lee and Louis Armstrong somewhere in the middle, while being roomy enough for Gabriel’s vocals, which balance a wizened raspiness with an sweet tenderness. Simply put, it’s the sort of vulnerable and endearingly honest love song that we just don’t get anymore — and that’s just one why I love it so much.
Directed by Alex Hennen Payne, the recently released video for “I’m Confessin'” is shot in a gorgeous and cinematic black and white and captures the 89 sessions with a warm and loving intimacy.