In home audio terms, Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro is a turntable, a stack of LPs and a set of boxy, vintage speakers. Spotify and Bluetooth, it is not.

As Frenchmen Street has changed, Snug Harbor has remained the same. In an increasingly digital world, Snug Harbor is still proudly analog, presenting organic music in a cozy, warm, wood-framed space that feels like the inside of one of those vintage speaker cabinets.

That’s a good thing.

Like the venue itself, the Dec. 26 “Return to Mars” show was a throwback: a reunion of guitarist Steve Masakowski’s short-lived electronic jazz project from the early 1980s that released a single album, “Mars,” in 1983.

On “Mars,” Masakowski collaborated with New York saxophonist David Liebman as well as local bassist James Singleton, keyboardist Larry Sieberth, and drummers James Black, Johnny Vidacovich and Ricky Sebastian, among others.

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From left, keyboardist Larry Sieberth, guitarist Steve Masakowski, bassist James Singleton, saxophonist Clarence Johnson III and drummer Ricky Sebastian perform with Masakowski's reunited "Mars" project at Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro on New Orleans' Frenchmen Street on Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2023.

Forty years later, Masakowski reunited on the Snug Harbor stage with Singleton, Sieberth and Sebastian. Saxophonist Clarence Johnson III, who was still years away from joining the Brother Martin High School marching band when the “Mars” album first came out, filled in for Liebman.

Collectively, they served up a lot to savor.

Still schooling the youngsters

Individually, all five are impressive. Sebastian, to name one, has toured and/or recorded with John Scofield, Harry Belafonte, Michael Franks, Dianne Reeves, Herbie Mann and many, many others. An Opelousas native, he has performed at festivals and taught drum clinics around the globe.

During a 17-year New York residency, Sebastian gigged with legendary, and legendarily troubled, bassist Jaco Pastorius. Pastorius wanted him to go on tour. Sebastian declined, preferring to keep his gig with Blood Sweat & Tears rather than risk being stranded somewhere on the road in the event of a Pastorius meltdown.

After moving back to New Orleans in the 1990s, Sebastian dedicated much of his time to teaching at the University of New Orleans and elsewhere. One of his former students, Doug Belote, watched the second “Return to Mars” set from the Snug Harbor balcony.

As a high school student in Lafayette, Belote wrote a letter to Sebastian as part of a class assignment requiring him to reach out to someone in a profession that interested him. Sebastian was on tour at the time, so he didn’t see the letter until weeks later. Struck by Belote’s sincerity, he wrote him back.

Belote, who still has the letter from Sebastian, later moved to New York to study with him. Belote went on to back everyone from Grammy-winning dobro player Jerry Douglas to guitarists Robben Ford and Charlie Hunter to Dr. John and a litany of other New Orleans bandleaders.

Watching Sebastian at the “Return to Mars” show amounted to another de facto music lesson.

To 'Mars' and back

Following sheet music and their own instincts and telepathy, Sebastian and his bandmates opened the late set with “What It Was,” the title track from Masakowski’s 1993 Blue Note Records debut. Singleton, Sieberth and Sebastian all contributed to that album, continuing their collaboration from the “Mars” album a decade earlier.

Singleton draped himself over his double bass, bowing it in a sequence that shifted from soft to aggressive. Johnson ripped a full-bodied tenor sax solo as Sebastian’s crisp strikes and tight fills defined the arrangement’s boundaries. Masakowski picked clean clusters of notes on his custom seven-string guitar while Sieberth colored in empty spaces on keyboards.

“Budapest,” another cut from “What It Was,” featured shifts in melody and mood until Sieberth capped it with a dramatic keyboard flourish that would have been right at home in “Phantom of the Opera.”

They explored “Paladia,” the lush opening track from Masakowski’s second Blue Note album, 1995’s “Direct AXEcess.” Singleton, Masakowski and Johnson faced Sebastian as he conjured one thunderous crescendo after another leading to a final resolution.

“Theme For Falling Leaves,” the closing track on the “Mars” album, featured lush contributions from Sieberth on grand piano and Johnson on soprano saxophone. The set concluded with “Eclipse” and “Super Nova,” the first two cuts on “Mars.”

All evening, highflying musicianship and compositional complexity were served up with a sense of fun and palpable joy, from Johnson popping the keys of his sax to Singleton and Sebastian exchanging smiles mid-song.

On every level, it was a successful night. The first show sold out at $30 a ticket, and the room was nearly full for the late set, too.

The mix of locals and visitors included a family of four seated at a small table near the stage. Clearly it was the father who wanted to hear jazz the night after Christmas. He bobbed his head and beamed as his wife and teenage son and daughter sat stoically. Maybe the teens didn’t know what to make of real music being made by real humans in real time.

Honoring the past, preparing for the future

Hopefully Snug Harbor will continue to present such music for a long time, regardless of what happens on the rest of Frenchmen Street.

A year ago, longtime Snug Harbor talent buyer and landlord Jason Patterson bought the business from late founder George Brumat’s heirs. Patterson was the obvious choice to be caretaker of Snug Harbor’s substantial legacy; no one is more intimately familiar with the inner workings of New Orleans’ premiere modern jazz club.

He and the team at Snug Harbor are bullish on its future. On select weekends starting in January, the club will revive its late-night concert series.

Several months ago, Snug Harbor restored its seven-nights-a-week music schedule for the first time since the pandemic. Thus the club was able to host the stellar “Return to Mars” show on a Tuesday. 

In a nod to modern reality and practicality, Masakowski has uploaded the “Mars” songs to YouTube. But he still harbors a stash of the original LPs. Hurricane floodwaters ruined the record jackets, but the vinyl itself is fine.

He’s considering printing new jackets and making the “Mars” album available again on vinyl.

He should. Because as Snug Harbor demonstrates nightly, the vintage approach can still sound as fresh as ever.

Email Keith Spera at