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Treme: The most musical TV series ever?

Tim Woodall

treme 300x159 Treme: The most musical TV series ever?As a drama, Treme has been described as meandering. And it has to be said, compared with predecessor The Wire, David Simon’s newer HBO series moves at a glacial pace.

Set three months after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Treme is ostensibly about the reaction of the people of New Orleans – or more specifically, people from the eponymous neighbourhood – to natural disaster and governmental mismanagement. But the first season – the second is awaiting release on DVD – seems at times more of an elongated hymn to the city that is the cradle of American music. Swing, jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, hip hop, Cajun, country: Treme is drenched in sound and performance.

Whole sections of the hour-long episodes are given over to club gigs, street busking, studio sessions and jamming of various kinds. Music isn’t used as aural wallpaper or scene setting; it is the end not the means. David Simon has always been uncompromising in his pursuit of authentic experience on the small screen, and Treme is no different. American popular culture began in New Orleans and music is at the heart of what the city is about, he is saying.

Equally impressive is Simon’s handling of that old bugbear concerning live music on screen; actors failing to convincingly pretend-play instruments. He did this by casting musicians, including many New Orleans natives. Of the cast required to make music on screen, only Wendell Pierce (pictured), unforgettable as ‘The Bunk’ in The Wire, has to handle an instrument he can’t play. And he got around it by learning the trombone, something he apparently did with some success.

Outside the main parts, too, famous and less well known musicians crop up all over the place in Treme. For example, there’s Troy Andrews, aka Trombone Shorty, a local musician with a growing international following who got his moniker by wielding the bulky instrument as a young child in the city’s famous brass band parades. Possibly the best cameo comes from piano legend, McCoy Tyner, who graces one New York scene with his timelessly stylish presence.

Tyner is one of the headline artists at this year’s London Jazz Festival (LJF), which kicks off in a matter of weeks. Disappointingly, given Treme mania in my neck of the woods, there aren’t many New Orleans artists at this year’s festival, with one big exception. The Soul Rebels Brass Band performs at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 16 November. The band is promoting new album ‘Unlock Your Mind’, a bombastic but well arranged set of originals and covers that brings the brass band tradition up to speed with hip-hop and soul influences.

Perhaps next year, LJF could bring over Wendell Pierce’s ‘A Night in Treme’ show, which toured throughout the US this summer? Until then, the Soul Rebels will have to fly the flag for New Orleans culture by themselves.

For more on the music of Treme, take a look at this blog, which lists every song featured in the first series.

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