When you consider New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz, blues, swing,rhythm & blues, and rock, it would seem a representative single-CD compilation would be impossible to create. Nonetheless, the mix-tape wizards at Putumayo World Records have done it again.
New Orleans is exquisitely packaged with Putumayo’s instantly recognizable brightly painted cover and environmentally friendly packaging. The thoroughly researched liner notes by New Orleans musicologist Baty Landis are presented in English, Spanish and French, in keeping with the areas multi-cultural heritage. They also include a page of tourism links, a Seafood Gumbo recipe from world-famous New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme, and an Enhanced-CD section with some great New Orleans footage accompanied by Kermit Ruffins.
Ruffins is also the contemporary revivalist best suited to start-off the set with his own "Drop Me Off in New Orleans." Born in 1964, Ruffins is one of the most prominent new musicians keeping the New Orleans legacy alive. The trumpet/singer/songwriter cofounded the Rebirth Brass Band, and later the Barbecue Swingers. Putumayo World Records released a complete CD of his music at the same time, further proof of his importance. The ghost of Louis Armstrong looms large over this and every song in the collection.
Speaking of trumpet/vocal wonders, this version of "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues" pairs 23-year-old Nicholas Payton with 91-year-old Doc Cheatham. Cheatham was a New Orleans native who backed all kind of big names since the vaudeville days, subbed for Louis Armstrong in Chicago, and led his own bands since 1926. Though he could perform everything from Dixieland to Latin to Hard-Bop, he didn’t master his own solo style until 70 years old. Here, he also sings in his inimitable old-timey way. The same age as Ruffins, New Orleans-co-foundednative Payton proved himself a Young Lion in even the most selective jazz circles. This, thanks to his family connections (bassist Walter Payton is his father), tutelage with the Marsalis dynasty, and most of all his formidable talent. Hell yeah, they’ve gotta right.
One of the most famous exporters of New Orleans music, Louis Prima (1911-1978) performs "Basin Street Blues" as only he could. The song itself is a time capsule, referring to the Storyville red light district, which only lasted from the 1890s through the First World War, which was long enough to etch itself permanently on America’s creative conscience. It was composed by Spencer Williams in 1926 and recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1929. Another native son, Dr. John provides his version of this song as well. Born in 1940 and active since the late 50s, Dr. John is a well-established New Orleans tradition. A singer/guitarist/pianist from the 8th Ward, his crazy blend of music can be compared to seafood gumbo, a harmony of deeply distinct ingredients. He may not be a household name outside of New Orleans, but he is a force of nature as real as Katrina, having collaborated with Professor Longhair, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, Allen Toussaint, the Meters, the Neville Brothers and everyone else in the region, plus John Hammond, Jr., Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger and others. His "Basin Street Blues" is Southern Voodoo Boogie-Woogie at its best.
The Preservation Hall Hot 4 with Duke Dejan provided "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams," a true testament to the spirit of New Orleans. The song was part of a historic night at the historic hall.
"Baby Won't You Please Come Home" presents the gospel and R&B shadings of New Orleans’ music, thanks to Topsy Chapman & The Pros. One of the area’s most prominent female musicians, Topsy grew up in Kentwood, Louisiana in a musical family. She is a fixture of New Orleans festivals, clubs, and riverboats. She became an internationally known figure due to the Off-Broadway hit musical "One Mo’ Time" which she arranged and starred in, as well as her frequent appearances on Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion."
"The Devil Done Got Me Blues" is a hard-swinging instrumental hit by Kevin Clark and the Jazz Revolution. Clark is another fabulous trumpeter who has been praised by Al Hirt and Pete Fountain, in print by the Gambit Weekly, Downbeat Magazine, Toronto Star, and Ottawa Sun, and even a recent Grammy nomination. Kevin has recorded and toured the world with Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Pete Fountain, The Dukes of Dixieland, the New Orleans Nightcrawlers Brass Band, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Junior Brown, Lee Greenwood, as well as long-term gigs for Disney and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
No New Orleans collection would be complete without something from the Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) canon. What can be said that hasn’t been said? Suffice it to say, Pops is a central figure not only in New Orleans and American music history, but also Western Civilization at large. "Tin Roof Blues" is one of Armstrong’s lesser works, but nonetheless infused with his unmistakable vocal, horn, and story-telling style. It’s a song he performed from the 1920s until his death in 1971, this time with his 1966 All Star band.
Though not a trumpet or singer, clarinetist Dr. Michael White is probably the living musician most resembling Louie Armstrong as a musical ambassador. Dr. White is a musicologist, jazz historian, educator, clarinet player, bandleader, and Xavier University professor. He started out playing Classical music, but eventually switched his allegiance to jazz, Blues and Brass Band traditions. Though permanently positioned in New Orleans, New York jazz audiences know him from his annual New Year’s Eve shows at the Village Vanguard. He also remains closely associated with Wynton Marsalis since his 1989 release, The Majesty of the Blues, and numerous Jazz at the Lincoln Center series since. His "Give It Up (Gypsy Second Line)" was written for New Orleans parades, but borrows heavily from Gypsy and Jewish party music as well. Educational and fun? That’s right, Doc.
In addition to Dr. John and Dr. Michael White, Deacon John is a musical giant barely known beyond New Orleans city limits. He is a legendary guitarist and singer whose credits as a session musician include chart-toppers such as Lee Dorsey's "Working in the Coal Mine", Ernie K-Doe's "Mother in Law" and Irma Thomas' "Ruler of My Heart". His song "Going Back to New Orleans" is really the big-band climax from the fantastic documentary film called Jump Blues, which showcases Deacon John with Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Wardell Quezergue, Zion Harmonizers, and others playing material inspired by the likes of Erma Franklin, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair. It’s a celebration of New Orleans music if ever there was one, and an obvious fit for this record.
As a fitting closer, Gregg Stafford and Dr. Michael White offer the medley "Bye & Bye/When the Saints Go Marching In." It demonstrates the characteristically New Orleans fusion of funeral parades and Gospel shouting, blues and affirmation. Stafford is another trumpeter/vocalist in the Satchmo tradition, joined in perfect harmony by Dr. White’s joyous clarinet.
Putumayo’s New Orleans is a representative collection which gives you a good feeling for what this vibrant city is all about, and a little about each of these essential musicians. It also succeeds on another level by sending you out to hear more from each delightful artist. By design, it’s heavy on trumpet/vocal led swing jazz combos, with plenty of clarinet glissandos, all with that distinctly Southern swagger. By showcasing young musicians with the old, Putumayo reminds us New Orleans jazz is not simply historical, but a living, constantly evolving art form.
From the time New Orleans was released, Putumayo committed a portion of their proceeds to Tipitinia's Foundation and local radio station WWOZ, but after last year's devastating hurricanes, ALL proceeds from New Orleans and Mississippi Blues are given directly to relief efforts until the end of 2006. So buy 'em already, you'll love this musiband-leaderc and now you really have no excuse.