Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Road trip album: ‘Red Beans & Rice’

Critic At Large

Kevin Van Ess and The Talk of the Town

Front cover.


Ahhh, a taste of New Orleans, traditional style, by a player who really knows how to play.

On road trips to venues in our area to see live performances to review, I pop new CDs by local performers into the car player for a bit of company.

Here is one I haven’t gotten to writing about in the crush of postponements and cancellations surrounding the coronavirus COVID-19.

The album is by Kevin Van Ess and his Dixieland music style band, Talk of the Town of Green Bay.

Kevin Van Ess is a clarinetist supreme.

Many, many people know his enthusiasm for teaching from his three-plus decades as band director in Green Bay public schools. Kevin Van Ess dared to hold school concerts in Cofrin Family Hall of the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts, and he and colleagues put on SHOWS the likes of which most middle schools only dream of. He retired from teaching at Green Bay Washington Middle School in 2018.

As a player, I have heard him many times. One case was especially poignant. The story:

As a kid, Kevin Van Ess listened to albums by Pete Fountain, a famed New Orleans clarinetist from records, TV and live performances. The two eventually met – Pete Fountain smitten by Kevin Van Ess’s musicianship on clarinet that stemmed in part from learning from Pete Fountain’s records. They struck up a friendship. Aboard Pete Fountain’s float that would lead a Mardi Gras parade past a million people in New Orleans, Kevin Van Ess would let fly on clarinet.

Pete Fountain died Aug. 6, 2016, at age 86. A week later in a theme show, “Gospel,” by Daddy D Productions of Green Bay, Kevin Van Ess soloed in “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” the Pete Fountain signature song. He was playing one of Pete Fountain’s clarinets. All those notes Kevin Van Ess played along with Pete Fountain as a kid, all the steps they took toward meeting and knowing and becoming friends with that mentor channeled through Kevin Van Ess’s performance on Pete Fountain’s clarinet. Kevin Van Ess was saying goodbye with sheer, profound beauty.

There was no other performance like it in all the live performances I’ve seen.

The album “Red Beans & Rice” is a reflection of the enthusiasm and verve of a slice of New Orleans music that Pete Fountain was so much representative of – and Kevin Van Ess can play so well with his own band.

Back cover of album.

The lineup: Kevin Van Ess, clarinet and sax; Dave Ehren, trumpet; Ken Petersen, trombone and tuba; Don Vandenhouten, piano and vocal; Andy Mertens, bass and vocal; Joe Maas, drums. Website:

The playlist, with notes:

+ “While We Dance at the Mardi Gras.” Clarinet featured. Perky and bright with a beat. Flavor of the festival.

+ “Basin Street Blues.” Clarinet solo flourishes – high notes and fast and full of nuances. Band rolls in and struts. Trombone rhythms. Trumpet strides. Piano zips. Bass grooves. Dusting of drum cymbals. Finale is clarinet showcase all UP and down with deft fingering and breath control, with improvisations, including Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” A material.

+ “Cute.” Drums start the kick. Trumpet punch. Band rhythm. Piano/bass sharing. Drum dips and trips around.

+ “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.” Clarinet slow and soulful. Pace leisurely. Mood carries in trumpet, trombone features.

+ “Honkytonk.” Clarinet high and hoppin’ along with the kickin’ band. Clarinet features with multiple colorings. Trombone comes in grrrrrowlin’. Trumpet perks on the rhythm. Tuba ooomps on a fun beat. Piano tinkles and twinkles. Clarinet arrives back with drive and flashes. All amalgamated in joy at end with clarinet zippy. A material.

+ “Bill Bailey.” Band combo sound opens. Vocal by Don Vandenhouten of a distinctive vintage free-form of-the-moment style. Clarinet, trumpet, trumpet, bass, drums featurettes.

+ “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Trombone opens, trumpet leads and the two share. Clarinet adds bright colors. Kind of a jazz painting. Vocal by Don Vandenhouten brings old-timey feel, kind of a sing-along touch. Clarinet “duet” at two levels. Trombone, clarinet, trumpet team for filling “brush strokes.”

+ “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans.” Clarinet busy with playful niches. Trumpet flows. Piano embraces style, along with bass, drums steady as usual. Trumpet, clarinet, trombone featurettes closing with clarinet colorings.

+ “Home.” Trumpet opens rhythm flow. Clarinet “star” featurette. Vocal by Don Vandenhouten carries keen thread of note-by-note syllable-by-syllable style. Clarinet, trombone, trumpet “dance” rhythms.

+ “Struttin’ with Some Barbeque.” Trumpet starts up the zip in front of band. Clarinet “star” featurette. Trombone zing. Trade off to trumpet, piano, bass and leading into zesty finale, with a bit of drum zip.

+ “What a Wonderful World.” Strolling style featuring trumpet flow. Clarinet joins as “vocalist” in middle. Trombone embraces a reflective aura. Clarinet “sings” again. Trumpet leads toward a reminiscing closing path. So many people know this as a vocal, but this is a way to pause and let memories flow.

+ “Sing Sing Sing.” Drum beats a fiery open, with trumpet heading band into pure vigor of the A-live song. Clarinet showcase in doo-dads plus high heat. Drums primal and infectious. Super: Bass rhythm gadget, plus infusion of medley. Trumpet lights up headlong drive to end. A material.

While I initially listened to “Red Beans & Rice” a few times while driving, this is the first time I sat down and wrote a review in real time while listening on my home computer. I wrote descriptions/impressions of what I heard as the music was playing. Weird? I dunno. Reviewing albums is nutty in the first place – writing words to represent sounds… plus everyone has his or her own taste in music. But I have reviewed hundreds of albums, notably for a stretch with the Green Bay Press-Gazette when Gannett News Service ran some of my reviews on its national wire service.

Final thoughts: In ways, the locally made “Red Beans & Rice” is a showcase for Kevin Van Ess’s kaleidoscopic inventiveness on clarinet, but this is not a one-note Johnny album for sure. The players around Kevin Van Ess have heart, drive and skill, too, to create a vivid musical landscape.

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