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For the past year, the Ted Ludwig Trio has been Little Rock's best-kept musical secret. Judging by the capacity crowd at its CD release party last Thursday at the Afterthought, however, it would seem that the word is finally out. Most folks who arrived after the 8 p.m. start time were either put on a waiting list or turned away. Those who made it in on time were lucky to get seats in the sweltering venue. The trio's weekly residence at the Afterthought on Thursday nights has built it a solid following, and the new CD, “Common Grounds” is sure to expand the band's reach.
The turnout at last week's show, as well as the CD it celebrated, represented a significant victory for a group of musicians brought together by tragedy. Both Ludwig and bassist Bill Huntington were luminaries on the New Orleans music scene until Hurricane Katrina. Huntington, the veteran bassist of jazz legend Ellis Marsalis' group, and Ludwig, the young seven-string upstart, have known each other since 1998. They were reunited in Little Rock after the storm and soon joined forces with Little Rock's premier jazz drummer, Brian Brown.
New Orleans' loss is Little Rock's gain. Ludwig and Huntington could have easily prospered in any major city, but they chose Little Rock. All three men are world-class musicians who play with effortless grace, intelligence and fire. Ludwig, at just 31, plays with the swing and maturity of a musician twice his age. Like most guitarists of his generation, he began with hard rock and heavy metal, but soon was converted to the ways of jazz by New Orleans guitar guru Hank Mackie. And unlike a lot of jazz players his age, his feet are firmly planted in traditional jazz structures. He's not a fusioneer or a free-jazzer; he is an improviser with a dedication to melody and swing. He has the chops to shame any guitar player in this area, but he wields his axe for the cause of musical communication, not for self-centered sensationalism.
His rhythm section is likewise dedicated to the exchange of musical ideas. With Ludwig, they are conjurors of musical spirits. Brown is a drummer who knows how to play the notes as well as the spaces. When the moment demands it, he can fire off an intense salvo of snare rolls, finesse the cymbals or leave a wide-open space for his fellow musicians to occupy. The venerable Huntington anchors the antics of the younger men, mediating the choices of tone and groove that help create something that is more than the sum of its parts.
Mixture was the theme of the evening, and of the album. Classic songs from as far back as 1938 (“The Nearness of You”) ran alongside Ludwig's and Huntington's own recent compositions. From traditional ballads like “While We're Young” to modern stomping funk workouts like “Cedar's Blues” and “Sidewalk Strut” (written by another New Orleans seven-string player, Steve Masakowski), the band balanced the energy of each set with an intuitive sense of tension and release. Several guests were brought into the group: Bassist Joe Vick joined for several songs in the second set, UALR guitar professor Michael Carenbauer added nylon string accompaniment to Ludwig's bossa nova-flavored “Femea Do Sol,” and Ludwig's father, Ted Sr., played alto saxophone for a handful of tunes throughout the night.
If you haven't stopped by the Afterthought on a Thursday night to witness these cats tear it up, you should remedy that soon. The diverse, multi-generational crowds are getting bigger. With the Ted Ludwig Trio, we have ourselves a unique addition to Little Rock music: an authentic piece of hot New Orleans jazz.