Treme – “Do You Know What It Means?”

13 Apr

It was hard not to go into Treme with crazy-high expectations. It’s David Simon, it’s jazz musicians in New Orleans, it’s David Simon making a show about jazz musicians in New Orleans… man. So I went in really, really hoping that I’d like it, but still tried to check my expectations at the door and watch the show on its own terms.

It’s far too early to share any thoughts on the show as a whole, but I really liked the first episode. And damned if they didn’t get just about every little musical detail right. The only two works I’ve seen that match it in terms of musical authenticity are Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues and Clint Eastwood’s often-overlooked Lush Life.

If track record is anything to go by, getting jazz “right” onscreen is a really tricky proposition. But the minute Antoine (played by Wendell “The Bunk” Pierce) put his trombone to his face and started to blow, I felt relieved. It looked right, it sounded right, and it felt right.

Props to Pierce for working that sequence out – the first fifteen minutes of the show relied heavily on him nailing those parts in order to seem believable as a trombonist, and he pulled it off. Almost as though they were testing me, Antoine ripped into it as the parade wound up, and in the process hit some weird notes. I thought “…ooookay, that was a strange note…” And sure enough, right afterward,  the band bellies up at the bar and everyone starts giving him shit about the note he just biffed. He’s trying to play it off, and his ex at the bar calls it the clam it was. Nice.

I wouldn’t have expected anything less from David Simon, but all the same, it was cool that in the first fifteen minutes of the show, Simon stepped right up and said, “Screw talking about it, I’m just going to show you this music.” And for the rest of the episode he did just that. Musical instruments weren’t held up as shining, tailsmanic objects, they were just everyday things, tools of the trade. Horns and strings dotted the fringes of every scene, and it felt good to see the well-worn bells of the marching sousaphones, the guitars that lay around Davis McAlary’s apartment, strewn amongst boxes of cassette tapes and drums covered in Mardi Gras beads. Antoine carries his trombone without a case, ready to play at the drop of a hat, cabbing and bumming about the city looking for gigs.

Despite taking a diegetic approach similar to that of The Wire, Treme had much more music than The Wire ever did. Which makes sense, when you consider that New Orleans itself has more music going on than Baltimore. It’s also helpful that McAlary spins vinyl at a local radio station, which will certainly allow for more “montage cheating” a la Prez’s Johnny Cash-inspired montage in The Wire’s second season. I thought that Treme’s first montage, in which Davis defied the station heads and blasted Louie Prima’s “Buona Sera”, was absolutely brilliant.

And there were so many more cool little musical touches – the head of an upright bass poking out of a car window, a trombonist goofing around with his young son by buzzing through his mouthpiece… they even managed to illustrate the stylistic divide between New York jazz and New Orleans jazz. The clear, twisting lines played by Delmond’s quintet at The Blue Note stood in stark contrast to the second-line horn music on the streets of The Big Easy – even to an an untrained ear, it would’ve been clear that we were hearing two different dialects of a musical language. I’m expecting to see more of that contrast as Delmond gets back into the New Orleans scene.

And, of course, I loved any scene involving Kermit Ruffins.

McAlary: “Can you just stand there telling me that all you want to do is get high, play some trumpet, and barbecue in New Orleans your whole damn life?”

Ruffins: *exhales* “Yeah, that’ll work.”

Sure, jokes like that are broader than most jokes on The Wire, and yeah, maybe a little bit more contrived. There were a couple of other little things that I thought the show didn’t quiiite pull off, as well. The jerk-off British interviewer seemed like a straw man, haughtily proclaiming jazz to have “had its day,” and dismissively stating that New Orleans wasn’t a city worth saving. I liked Melissa Leo’s feisty attorney, but thought that the scene in which she finally lost her temper felt a little forced. And as great as it was to see Kermit, his scenes were written and framed a bit too much through the worshipful eyes of an outsider. But it’s gotta be hard not to look at him that way – I mean, it’s Kermit Ruffins! The world must know!

But yeah, I’m really looking forward to the next nine episodes. It would appear that Treme is going to rely less on plot and more on character than The Wire did, and the characters felt much easier to get to know as a result. It’ll be a nice change, I think – not that it would’ve been bad to have another incredibly dense, difficult-to-unpack show, but I’m interested to see what Simon & co. do when working with a broader palate.

And more than anything, I’m relieved that Treme is getting the music right, and I can’t wait to see how Simon and Eric Overmeyer start to tell the story of New Orleans. If “Do You Know What It Means” is any indication, it’ll be a story told through music, and I can’t wait to hear more.


2 Responses to “Treme – “Do You Know What It Means?””

  1. Montana April 13, 2010 at 4:37 pm #

    This was too funny because we all know they would try it if they could. Keep going Silver medalist winner Bailin, priceless.

  2. Das Bün April 13, 2010 at 6:31 pm #

    Man I feel a little conflicted about Treme. I mean I LOVED the first episode, and I find it hard to believe that Wendell Pierce isn’t actually a boss bone player (look at how he swings it around the bar stool on his way out!).
    I feel like David Simon was using his whole arsenal of tricks on the first episode: motifs galore, camera work highlights location not population, posing questions visually rather than through dialogue, and even a Wire-esque montage. Some of this is just his style, and I’d be disappointed if Treme lacked that unique David Simon feel, but it all felt way more deliberate than any Wire episode. In the first episode of the Wire you have no idea what the work as a whole is going to be about even though all the elements are secretly there. He usually compares it to the first chapter of Moby Dick, which I think is appropriate. Here he gives us a really interesting basis, but leaves out a lot of the mystery. I think his narrative is interesting from the get go, but I wonder how much room it has to grow. I guess I’ll just have to keep watching.

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