KEYBOARD TO THE CITY
Last year was pianist and organist Joe Krown’s 20th as a New Orleans musician.
In a city with a great piano-playing tradition and many talented modern-day practitioners of the keyboard arts, Krown is among the most recognizable piano men.
He plays most Sundays at the Maple Leaf Bar, for instance, with the all-star Joe Krown Trio featuring Walter “Wolfman” Washington and Russell Batiste Jr.; he leads his swing band one or more nights a month at Rock ’n’ Bowl and Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse; he appears at Dos Jefes in a piano trio featuring John Fohl and Mike Barras; and plays his genre-spanning solo thing four days a week at Ralph’s on the Park.
Krown grew up on New York’s Long Island and attended college in Buffalo. He worked from Boston until he took the keyboard spot in the Slidell-based Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s band, Gate’s Express. Krown stayed with the fiercely eclectic Brown until the singer, guitarist and fiddler’s death in 2005.
Gate’s Express worked so much in the 1990s, playing 125 gigs a year, that it took Krown a few years to get acclimated to New Orleans after his 1992 move to the city. A 1991 visit to New Orleans had convinced him it was the place for him.
Members of Brown’s band, however, half of whom lived in Nashville, tried to convince Krown to move to the country music capital.
“I went up there and hated it,” he said. “I didn’t know country music and every third person I met called me a Yankee. I didn’t fit in with that scene, so I came to New Orleans.”
During his first night in the city, Krown and a cousin who was a local resident strolled down Bourbon Street.
“There were like 30 bands on a Tuesday working on Bourbon Street,” he remembered. “I knew every song they played. I was like, ‘I’m home! I can sit in with any band on Bourbon Street and make a living.’ I was like, ‘This is it.’ ”
Still working with Brown’s band, Krown also performed and recorded solo as well as with the Joe Krown Organ Trio; Sansone, Krown and Fohl; and the Joe Krown (Piano) Trio.
His discography has grown to 12 albums. The latest, “Soul Understanding,” features Washington and Batiste.
The Krown, Washington and Batiste collaboration came together in 2007.
“Post-Katrina, Gatemouth was gone but I wasn’t struggling,” Krown recalled. “I had my own projects. We were cruising along, playing gigs, but I really wanted to do something a little different.”
Krown envisioned a weekly organ trio gig at a New Orleans venue. Besides the musical benefits, the practical reasons for it were obvious. Together, a Hammond organ and Leslie speaker weigh about 600 pounds.
“It’s an ordeal getting it in and out, versus just flipping it on, rolling, turn it off, go home,” Krown said.
Performing with Washington, a singer and guitarist who embraces soul, funk and rhythm-and-blues, had been a Krown ambition. Another local music master, funky Meters drummer Batiste, solidified the lineup.
“With Walter, Russell and myself,” Krown said, “we’re all rooted in the sound and style of New Orleans, but we’re presenting it in a different way. There aren’t many organ trios out there and very few of them are funky organ trios. We catch people off guard.”
In another post-Katrina development, Krown finally let the New Orleans pianist he’d repressed within himself out.
“I’ve always had that deep feeling for it but Gatemouth was anti-that music,” Krown said. “He kept telling me not to play that way. He said I was too good to just copy Professor Longhair.”
Krown’s 2012 solo album, “Exposed,” is all about New Orleans piano.
“I suppressed that because I had been in Gatemouth mode,” he said. “After he died, I was like, ‘Why am I holding it back?’ And that’s what I’ve been going for since then.”