Those who can't do, teach. Those who can, have the option. That's the conclusion you reach after spending a half hour talking to New Orleans keyboardist Joe Krown, whose current trio features the powerhouse duo of guitarist Walter "Wolfman" Washington and drummer Russell Batiste Jr.
A tremendous jazz and blues piano/organ player, Krown backed Chuck Berry during his trips through the Northeast in the late '80s, then left Boston for New Orleans to join Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown until the blues legend's 2005 death. Krown knows music, and also teaches it in the Jazz Studies Division at the University of New Orleans. In fact, he frequently goes to the keyboard during our interview to illustrate different piano styles over the phone.
"With stride, barrelhouse and boogie-woogie, your left hand is the rhythm machine and your right hand improvises melodies on top of that," he says, demonstrating how his hero Professor Longhair incorporated a woozy, syncopated rolling feel into barrelhouse piano playing, which helped create New Orleans' signature R&B sound.
These days, Krown has a side-project devoted to Longhair's music, but that wasn't always the case. While Gatemouth was a Louisiana resident, he hated that particular indigenous sound and didn't want it in his music.
"He was always very critical of me playing the New Orleans stuff, and that had its effect on me," says Krown, noting the enormous influence Gatemouth had on him and his career. "When someone is sitting there saying, 'Don't do this, don't do that' — even though I do it — it kind of restricts my development. After he passed, I definitely let that come out in a much bigger way."
Meanwhile, Krown's trio with Washington and Batiste — which released a fine 2010 collection called Triple Threat — plays loose-limbed improvisational R&B. After Gatemouth's death, Krown sought out Washington, who played for years in Lee Dorsey's legendary band, for his next project.
"I just thought for an organ trio he'd be the right guy," says Krown. "He's one of these jazzy guitar players playing a cleaner, bass-ier, more full-bodied sound. He's got enough of that jazz influence that his playing really reminds me of Grant Green. But we started playing and it just evolved into this more R&B thing, especially when you add Russell into it."
Batiste hails from a famous musical family and has played with all-stars, including a regular gig in the reincarnated "Funky" Meters. Krown compares Batiste to Rain Man: "His personal life's a total mess, but put him in front of a kit and he can do anything."
Playing with such terrific players has sharpened Krown's game. "It is really super free-form," he says of the group's material. "There's a lot of structure to how we get in and out of them, but in the middle anything happens. Anybody can do anything at any point, and without a bass player it can really flow in any direction sonically. With Russell, anything can happen rhythmically. When I first started playing with him, at least once a night I'd get lost."
Which is not a bad thing. If variety's the spice of life, you can bet Krown's reaching for the shaker.
"For me," he says, "it's all about if you can keep me interested."