In Cajun/Creole culture, “lagniappe” (pronounced “lan-yap”) generally describes a tip for services rendered or additional items proffered from retailer to customer in appreciation of a transaction.
But the literal translation of the French-derived word is, as drummer/percussionist Yvan Verbesselt notes, “something extra, something special.” That's precisely what Cincinnati’s Cajun-and-more sextet Lagniappe delivers on a regular basis.
“I don’t think there’s any band that plays all of what we play,” says newest member Jessie Berne, who provides bass, fiddle and clarinet to Lagniappe. “Everybody here is a multi-instrumentalist, so they play lots of different things, but the musical choices are so eclectic. Even in New Orleans, they don’t necessarily play polkas and the Grateful Dead.”
After two decades of entertaining local audiences (and earning multiple Cincinnati Entertainment Awards nominations) with a brilliantly swinging and stylistically improbable blend of Cajun, Zydeco, Gypsy Jazz, Dixieland, Tin Pan Alley and more, Lagniappe finally got around to recording their debut CD last year (an unofficial 1990 cassette and 1997 demo notwithstanding). Titled after an economic phrase coined by ’90s Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, Irrational Exuberance is every bit as descriptive as the band’s name.
“We get fairly wild and crazy in our gigs,” band co-founder James “Chico” Converse says. “Jessie dances up a storm, and I like to stand on a table or two if I think the table’s solid. And sometimes even if it’s not.”
Lagniappe’s long history is filled with strange coincidences and interconnections. Converse and Belgian transplant Verbesselt were actually acquainted in Louisiana, where both were French teachers. Converse moved here in 1988 and co-founded the band with original accordionist Steve Bing; Verbesselt relocated here the following year and ran into Converse at a Cincinnati Public Schools function. He joined Lagniappe in 1992, setting the stage for the band’s genre-blending future.
“Although we like to do traditional tunes, we don’t hesitate to add additional instrumentation,” Verbesselt says. “We play traditional Jazz, and we have accordion. I play different percussion on Cajun music that is not customary, and we add a lot of brass to Cajun music.”
Guitarist Chris Carmichael also joined in ’92, followed by accordionist Dick Franz in ’98. As Lagniappe’s membership fluctuated, the styles of music the band embraced began to increase, augmenting their early straight Cajun direction with the myriad genres they have incorporated.
“I never played Cajun music until I met Chico,” says Carmichael, who brought a Swing/Dixieland angle to Lagniappe. “I didn’t know anything about it.”
Another odd Lagniappe moment occurred a dozen years ago when the band advertised for an accordionist and 16-year-old Jessie Berne answered the call, accompanied by her imposing father, a music promoter who steered her toward American Roots music of all persuasions. Although she nailed the audition, common sense reared its ugly head.
“Chris said, ‘Chico, she’s 16. We play in bars. What are we going to do, drive to Hamilton every day and give her a ride to a bar in Cincinnati?,’ ” Converse recalls. “I was like, “You’re probably right.’ So that was the end of that.”
Lagniappe continued to evolve with the addition of multi-instrumentalist John Mooter, who had coincidentally played in UC’s Concert Jazz band with Franz (“I was a freshman and he was a senior, and I was just in awe of them all,” says Franz, then playing guitar). Mooter came to Lagniappe from a tightly structured Jazz atmosphere and was greatly anticipating the looser, funkier freedom offered by Converse’s all-stars.
“It’s really dance music, although a lot of people don’t dance in this town,” Mooter says. “The Jazz I played was not dance music. Even when I was a little boy I enjoyed, more than traditional Jazz, Jazz that involved people.”
Lagniappe crossed paths with Berne once again two years ago when she was waitressing at Arnold’s Bar and Grill. Now 10 years older and sporting a Master’s degree in music, she joined the band as a bassist but quickly showed her multi-instrumental chops. Everyone agrees that the near simultaneous arrivals of Berne and Mooter sparked the band to hit the studio.
“Jessie’s always bubbling with ideas, and they’re both just fine musicians,” Converse says. “And John plays slide trumpet or coronet with one hand and keyboards with the other. They’ve given us tremendous contributions, just tremendous. With all these good musicians in the band, it keeps me on my toes. I didn’t used to practice that much. (Now) I practice.”
Irrational Exuberance, which is selling well, is a cross section of everything Lagniappe does so well, from the Tin Pan Alley jaunt of “The Sheik of Araby” to the Dixieland swing of “Fidgety Feet” to the Creole classic “Jolie Fille,” made possible due to Berne’s clarinet skills. Converse and the band are all quick to credit producer Ted McConnell with Exuberance’s sonic success.
“Ted’s a marvelous guy,” Converse says. “He would say, ‘That last cut sucked, let’s try it again,’ and he would tell us what he thought we could do better. It was very intense.”
Lagniappe’s schedule is packed over the next few months, with a standing monthly gig at Arnold’s, a show at Paddlefest, a Rabbit Hash barn dance and various festival appearances, but the full calendar offers only partial satisfaction. Their audience has a big part to play in a successful Lagniappe gig.
“At our CD release party, we had the whole crowd really dancing,” Berne says. “I wish that would happen more.”
LAGNIAPPE (www.myspace.com/lagniappe) performs Friday at Arnold’s Bar and Grill downtown as part of the Bockfest activities and Saturday at the Crow’s Nest. Get Bockfest details here.