New Orleans is known, and rightly so, for its music, and on this Mardi Gras I thought I would make a short list of favorite recordings by artists from down Louisiana way. Most of this can be downloaded, but I still think of albums, even albums that are collections.
Satchmo is the linchpin of not only New Orleans music, but of popular music in general. His sound reaches back to nineteenth century traditions but transforms and propels them forward into modernity. This set shows off the early Louis, playing with New Orleans trumpet legend King Oliver, dueting with Bessie Smith, and, of course, inventing modern jazz with his Hot Fives and Sevens recordings. Dan Morgenstern’s notes are detailed and apt. Of course, you can’t go wrong by listening to the complete Hot Fives and Sevens either.
Bechet’s remarkable career is recounted in his highly readable autobiography, Treat It Gentle, in which he describes music making in prewar New Orleans with charm. But the real treat is in his clarinet and soprano sax playing. These sides begin in 1939, when Blue Note’s Alfred Lion made him one of the first artists on the label, to the 1950s.
Recorded in the 1950s, these classic sides (“Tipitina,” “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” “Go to the Mardi Gras”) practically define postwar boogie-woogie-meets-rumba New Orleans piano playing. ‘Fess was the great master from whom Dr. John, James Booker, and so many more learned their craft.
Producer Allan Toussaint, on hearing the Meters launch into yet another stone funk vamp in the studio, remarked that it was the same old thing. Badge of honor, rather, to the Meters, essentially the New Orleans house band in the city’s 1960s and 70s r&b scene. They called the tune “Same Old Thing” and proceeded to define a super-tight sound that musicians everywhere envied. This collection captures their slow evolution toward a more refined r&b style, but the heart of the sound is on full display here.
Mac Rabenneck, who took the stage name Dr. John the Night Tripper after leaving New Orleans for the psychedelic Los Angeles scene in the late 1960s, cut this record with fellow expat New Orleaneans as a kind of letter home. The record ended up defining a canon of New Orleans r&b classics and includes not only a stirring version of “Iko Iko” but “Junko Partner,” a beat-perfect rendition of New Orleans parade rhythm topped with Lee Allen’s very, very tasty saxophone solos. The song could go on all day, or at least as long as the parade route lasts.
Mardi Gras is also celebrated in the country, and accordion master Chenier’s classic, recorded in Bogalusa, gets right down to business, starting the rural party right away and not letting up for an hour. The combination of zydeco and the blues feels just right for Mardi Gras.
The eccentric pianist and singer pulled together New Orleans piano traditions—classical included—into his own idiosyncratic mix, captured well in this collection. It includes his original “Pixie,” charming versions of “On the Sunny Side of the Street and “Goodnight Irene,” and a whole lot of fancy piano playing that never gets old.
Some will say it has to be a live disc, others will say it must be Fiyo on the Bayou, with its ultra-funky versions of “Hey Pocky Way” and “Fire on the Bayou.” But the most complete album the four brothers put together was this 1989 outing produced by Daniel Lanois, who heightens the spookiness factor. We get “Voodoo,” disturbing Dylan covers, a funereal “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and a storming “Fire and Brimstone.” On that track, the rhythm section of Willie Green and Tony Hall was never tighter, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band chips in to put it completely over the top.
The revival of the brass band tradition owes much to the Dirty Dozen’s emergence in the 1980s, closely followed by Rebirth and others. This recording features all original material, including the high-stepping title track, the punchy “Eyomzi” and the suite “Lost Souls of Louisiana,” showing the range of this marching group. The recording is also a terrific demonstration of the sousaphone’s possibilities, thanks to Kirk Joseph.
The Soul Queen of New Orleans recorded many classic sides over the years. This post-Katrina album marries her soulful alto with bluesy material recorded in Louisiana. With songs by Arthur Alexander, Doc Pomus, and even Stevie Wonder, along with traditional blues tunes such as “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor,” Thomas sounds terrific. On Wonder’s “Shelter in the Rain,” Thomas turns in a gospel lament and survivor’s anthem in one, made all the more poignant given the disaster of 2005.
That’s ten, and I haven’t even gotten to the various Marsalises, Jelly Roll Morton, Nicholas Payton, Fats Domino, the Subdudes, Christian Scott, George Lewis, and more. One good way to sample classic New Orleans music is through the excellent compilations that may or may not be available. Here are some favorites:
Crescent City Soul: The Sound of New Orleans, 1947-1974 (4 discs) (EMI, 1996)
New Orleans Party Classics & More New Orleans Party Classics (Rhino, 1992/1998)
Our New Orleans: A Benefit Album 2005 (Nonesuch, 2005)
Treme: Music from the Original HBO Series (Geffen/HBO, 2010)