Liz McComb’s The Spirit of New Orleans represents a return to her roots of sorts. Now living in France, McComb started as a singer in a small Pentacostal church in Cleveland, where her mother was a pastor, and she eventually moved on to discover jazz through the influence of her brother. After moving on to New York and then discovering Paris while on tour, she decided that Paris was where she would remain, carving out a career as a singer there and quite successfully at that. Her most recent CD, recorded in 2001 but not released until now, follows her previous recordings that brought her the attention she deserved.
However, The Spirit of New Orleans may be one of her most personal recordings, for she went back to Mississippi, from which her family originated before the move to Cleveland. There she recruited Eric Brown there, who leads the gospel choir Charity, to participate in the project. Finally realizing her ambition to record in the region that from which her family originated, McComb involved local musicians there to lend the authenticity that she sought for the CD. The result, a reflection of her experiences, blends jazz with gospel, a blend unique to New Orleans.
McComb starts The Spirit of New Orleans with Charity on the spiritual "Over My Head," as they sing the first chorus a capella with fervent depth of feeling possessed by the blues as well before the band comes in for ever-rising intensity. "Just a Closer Walk with Thee" continues in the same manner as McComb announced the name of the song in solo before the band comes in, gently swaying to allow McComb to exclaim the lyrics, providing occasion for her to showcase the strength of her voice, which is especially appropriate for the spiritual pieces.
However, not all of the tracks are as slowly paced or as deliberate as those. Her own composition, the rambling "The Big Mess," is a complaint about the conditions of the room where she lives, an occasion for joy rather than for despair. Tenor saxophonist Joseph Saulsburry picks up the cue and delivers his own chorus of nonchalant celebration. "Strange Things Are Happening Today" is equally joyous, as the bluesy shuffle rhythm electrifies not only McComb, but also the back-up musicians, particularly during the call-and-response section.
McComb was canny in her choice of instruments for accompaniment, for she chooses not only saxophone and piano, but also organ, guitar and tuba to lend authenticity to the endeavor. And that allows for some especially affecting solos, such as trumpeter Brian Murray’s on "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," sprung undoubtedly from the soulfulness of New Orleans partying and street musicianship. Or Byron Johnson adds the irresistible gospel feel to "I Know It Was the Blood," a rocking and infectious piece that keeps rising in meaning until the quieter ending.
The stand-out performance and it is a performance in the truest, most vital sense of the word is McComb’s version of "Old Man River," a logical choice for city whose character and vitality and disasters depends upon the Mississippi River. Lest one think that McComb’s album is another perspective on the destruction of much of the city by Hurricane Katrina, she recorded the tracks several years before then. Truly dedicated to the undying spirit of New Orleans, McComb stresses the "toil" and the "strain" and the "pain" that the river has witnessed throughout its history. Adding some words of her own, she sings it as a narrative, complete with introductory verse accompanied by trumpet, trombone and tuba, rising from almost a whisper to a shout at the end.
Thoroughly spiritual while retaining the sounds of jazz unique to New Orleans, Liz McComb not only has released one of her most personal albums, the result of a personal quest, but also she has emphasized the presence of gospel as an essential element of the music.