New Orleans En Vogue

Not so very long ago, Paste ran a feature listing five great tribute albums devoted to the city and musical legacy of New Orleans– pulling off the neat trick of highlighting one of my own favorite musical trends of 2010 and supporting their argument with a completely separate set of examples than I might have picked. There have, to be sure, been a number of ambitious compilation albums celebrating New Orleans’ musical legacy, many of them pitched as straightforward, post-Katrina charity projects. And a lot of those records are pretty good.

My favorite Crescent City celebrations of the last year or so, though, have been a little less directly socially- and politically-tilted, instead simply celebrating the city and its musical past and present, their homage not explicit but inherent. So I’ve come up with a short list of my own: Six reasons why New Orleans is shining as bright and ever in 2010– and why the city’s music still inspires.

Trombone Shorty and the Galactic crew
To some extent these are interchangeable; Galactic released a new album called Ya-Ka-May in February which featured Shorty’s dynamite playing, and he released his own record as a bandleader a few months later, produced by Galactic’s Ben Ellman. On their own, the two albums are both dynamite, sharing the same Mardi Gras spirit and line-music festivity, the same metallic sheen but soulful center; together, they paint a picture of a city whose music scene is always looking forward. If you think New Orleans’ musical legacy begins and ends at Preservation Hall, think again; there’s music here– “sissy” rappers and bounce, mind-boggling fusions of jazz, pop, funk, and hip-hop– that, unless you’re a local and are especially hip to their scene, is probably like nothing you’ve heard before.

Dr. John
At the other end of the spectrum, here’s a man who embodies– more than anyone alive, perhaps– the musical heritage of New Orleans. And his latest, called Tribal, is a wonderfully complete synthesis of John’s trademark smooth soul and R&B, late-night funk and rock and roll swing. It’s a monument to the man, Dr. John, and to the city that inspires him– spiritual homage, musical history, wonderfully alive and in-the-moment recording.

Allen Toussaint
Ever since his post-Katrina collaboration with Elvis Costello— the tremendous, Joe Henry-produced The River in Reverse— Toussaint has become the patron saint of New Orleans music. He’s appeared as a featured musician on both the Galactic and Trombone Shorty albums this year, and brought a certain New Orleans flavor to the latest album from Cyndi Lauper. And his songs have appeared on– yep– Trombone Shorty’s album, but also Mavis Staples’ and Dr. John’s.

David Simon’s New Orleans-set HBO drama has done more than a little to elevate the standing of the city’s music scene in the broader culture; and if there’s any doubt about the communal nature of said scene, would you believe that an episode of the show features cameos from Costello and Toussaint, recording The River in Reverse? Or that the soundtrack album– due later this month, and featuring an outstanding of of traditional, spirited Crescent City brass and roots music– features contributions from not only some of the show’s cast members, but also Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, and Trombone Shorty?

Aaron Neville
The R&B legend turns toward old spirituals and gospel numbers for his latest, I Know I’ve Been Changed— but he also turns toward his New Orleans roots, recruiting– who else?– Allen Toussaint to anchor the studio band on a sturdy upright piano. The songs often sound like they could have been cut live on a Sunday morning in an old Baptist church, but Toussaint brings a bit of swing to the proceedings. Joe Henry produced this excellent set– and speaking of which…

Joe Henry
Henry seems as responsible as anyone in bringing Toussaint back into the public eye. He produced the Neville album, too, and is currently working on a New Orleans blues album with Hugh Laurie. Rumor has it a few of the city’s musical pioneers will show up to play along– and don’t be surprised if that includes a few names that are featured elsewhere on this list.


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