New Orleans marked the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina by getting ready for yet another deadly storm, evoking memories of the deadly combination of wind, water and government negligence that devastated one of America's great cities three years ago. Even before Hurricane Gustav came roaring in this week, there was ample evidence that the city has yet recovered from Katrina's death blows.
There's little wonder why it's easier for many of us to look away from what rightly has been called our national shame. But thankfully—and appropriately—a group of Alabama gospel greats and two New Orleans jazz masters remind us. Two CDs released earlier this year, tell us that giving up on the city, its culture and its lifeblood, that is, its musical legacy, is not an option.
Down in New Orleans (Time Life) from The Blind Boys of Alabama and Love Songs, Ballads and Standards (Basin Street Records), from trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and his former teacher, the incomparable pianist and jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis, cover different ends of musical spectrum rooted in the Crescent City.
On Down in New Orleans, the Boys, traditionally a quintet of singers that now includes a drummer, guitarist and bass player, collaborate with storied New Orleans musicians including piano legend Allen Toussaint, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Hot 8 Brass Band, a new-generation, street-parade band. The result is a fusion of gospel, jazz, soul, funk, country and folk—a toe-tapping, spirit-filled celebration of how all these genres of music, born on American soil, connect and intermingle with each other.
But the Blind Boys' goal with this disc, says Jimmy Carter, an original member who now leads the almost 70-year-old group, wasn't to educate as much as it was to innovate and inspire. And each of the dozen tracks hits the mark, even if No. 13, a bonus live version of "Amazing Grace" sung to the melody of "House of the Rising Sun," threatens to upstage them all. Then again, as incredible as that bluesy rendering of "Amazing Grace" is (first recorded by the group in 2001), there's no chance of the music or the messages in the other 12 tunes being muted in comparison.
There's the funkified organ intro on track 1, "Free at Last." On the second half of the CD, there's Mahalia Jackson's gospel classic, "If I Could Help Somebody," reborn with the transcendent duet of Toussaint's genius on piano and Carter's vocals, which ring with conviction and rugged, worn, and weathered grace. The joyously infectious groove behind the Boys' call to "Make a Better World" (courtesy of the Hot 8 Brass Band)—so suited to all that still needs doing in New Orleans and beyond, and perfectly punctuated by John Gilbert's tenor sax solo—is in the best tradition of the New Orleans'street-parade sound. And that's only about a third of what makes Down in New Orleans a musical and spiritual journey that's absolutely worth the taking.
If Down in New Orleans is an homage to New Orleans' music—America's music—at its roots, then Mayfield and Marsalis' Love Songs, Ballads and Standards is a love letter to the fruit of those roots: straight-up, straight-ahead jazz with more than a nod to romance, delivered with all the polish, elegance and beauty of Mayfield's custom-made, jewel-encrusted Elysian trumpet.
So, yes, Love Songs is a precious collection of time-honored as well as more contemporary tunes. And it's not because there's any pretension or concern with ego here, but because, as Mayfield has discussed in interviews and in the CD's liner notes, this album was very nearly lost to Katrina. Sadly, Mayfield's father, Irvin Mayfield Sr., who died in the floods that followed the hurricane, did not escape that fate. The saving grace for the CD, originally scheduled for release in fall 2005, was Mayfield's iPod, on which he'd saved the original mixes of the sessions he'd recorded in 2004.
Dedicated to his father and all Katrina victims, the CD's warmth and musical integrity shine throughout. Perhaps it is brightest on "Yesterday," brilliant as the sparer first track on the disc ("Yesterday" also closes the CD in a version with orchestra); the ballad "Superstar," "Romeo and Juliet," a Mayfield composition that is the album's only original song and a captivating reworking of Corinne Bailey Rae's "Like a Star."
It's hard to imagine a more complementary pairing than Mayfield and Marsalis (no offense to Wynton or any of the other brothers Marsalis), with the youthful energy and zest of the former highlighted by the ease and excellence, seasoned and refined with time, of the latter. But of course, while Mayfield is young, only 30 in fact, he's also taken it upon himself to take on a mantle of experience and responsibility: as official cultural ambassador of New Orleans, founder and leader of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, and with his service on boards including the New Orleans Public Library Foundation.
All of us who are committed to not forgetting about New Orleans and to contributing to its recovery, however we can, can be grateful to Mayfield, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and all the musicians, both stable and struggling, who, like them, are keeping the soul of the city alive. As Mayfield told the CBS Evening News in May, music is, after all, "about communicating to people—what is the best about New Orleans, what is the best about America and how can we come together." It's a message that needs hearing, maybe now more than ever.
Tracie Fellers is a writer and editor who lives in Greensboro, N.C.