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Beloved New Orleans musician Charlie Gabriel signs with Seattle's Sub Pop label for debut album

The irrepressible Charlie Gabriel
Danny Clinch
Sub Pop Records
The irrepressible Charlie Gabriel

89-year-old saxophonist Charlie Gabriel's first album under his own name will be available digitally on Feb. 25, with vinyl and CD releases scheduled for July 1.

Charlie Gabriel was born in New Orleans, and is a fourth-generation New Orleans jazz musician.

Gabriel moved to Detroit when he was 14 and spent nearly 60 years there. He was asked to join the Lionel Hampton band when he was 16, and in the early '70s, Gabriel was a member of Aretha Franklin's orchestra.

“I came back to New Orleans because of [Hurricane] Katrina," Gabriel said in an interview with WGNO. "Katrina just knocked me off my feet, and I couldn’t stand it. I knew New Orleans was hurting. I saw my whole city just floating away in front of my eyes. I can’t express how I really feel because it hurts when I think about it."

Since 2006, Gabriel has been a member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Now 89 years old, his album "Eighty Nine" is the first time his name appears on the front of a record, as a bandleader.

"Eighty Nine" features Gabriel on his first instrument, the clarinet, as well as on the saxophone and vocals. Preservation Hall leader Ben Jaffe provides the the bass, and Joshua Starkman plays guitar. The recording includes six jazz standards and three original songs written by Gabriel.

Charlie Gabriel - I'm Confessin' (Official Video)

This release might seem like a departure for Sub Pop, Seattle's independent record label, which originally was mostly associated with the "grunge movement" (Nirvana, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, etc.), but it's also been known to deal in comedy albums and soundtrack recordings. Sub Pop's stated intent to "market and sell the recorded music of artists whose music ... 'we' really and truly love" certainly allows for the many talents of Charlie Gabriel.

The only time Gabriel has stopped playing music was last winter, when he lost his only remaining sibling, Leonard, to COVID-19. This recording project pulled Gabriel out of a dark depression and brought back his brilliant trademark "Mister Charlie" smile.

“I’ve been playing since I was 11 years old,” says Gabriel. “I never did anything in my life but play music. I’ve been blessed with that gift that God gave me, and I’ve tried to nurse it the best way I knew how.”

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.