MUSICAL RELIEF EFFORTS: Just as Time magazine’s person of the
year has sometimes gone to an influential evildoer, any reflection
on the most impacting personality in American music in 2005 must
settle on one name: Katrina. Her fury laid bare social and
political inequities — not to mention dormant racism in
America — while also focusing the world’s attention on one of this
planet’s most soulful cities.

The deepest manifestation of New Orleans’s soul is in the
music — which is all of our music. Never mind those hot spots on
the modern-day music power grid: L.A., Nashville, and N.Y.C.,
moving west to east. The real Mecca of American music was, is, and
shall ever be the Crescent City, spawning ground of jazz, R&B,
rock ’n’ roll, and more indigenous Louisianan sounds. It deserves
our love, thanks, and bucks.

Benefit musical efforts have been hitting the shelves in time
for the holidays. The best of these albums manage to provide cold,
hard economic succor while supplying sampler-style education in New
Orleans’s gumbo-style musical identity. Plus, they contain rocking,
soul-stirring music for its own sake, and a pleasant, sexy shock of
recognition: This is music that provides the all-important knots in
the American grain.

Nonesuch Records, one of America’s finest, has logically leapt
to the cause, with the inspiring new compilation Our New Orleans,
with fine liner notes by New Orleans resident and champion Richard
Ford. It opens, fittingly, with the optimistic up note of “Yes We
Can Can,” by Allen Toussaint, New Orleans’s legendary
behind-the-scenes scene-shaper. Allegory bumps up against harsh
realities in Irma Thomas’s “Back Water Blues” (“there ain’t no
place for a poor woman to go … ”). Buckwheat Zydeco stretches out
on “Cryin’ in the Street,” with searing lap steel lines; the
Preservation Hall Jazz Band gives vintage coloration to “Do You
Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans”; and honorary southerner
Randy Newman (actually a Hollywood boy) sings his bittersweet,
eerily prophetic “Louisiana 1927,” a righteous finale.

The party-for-a-cause continues on A Celebration of New Orleans
Music (Rounder). It fills the gaps of the Nonesuch package by
including important figures like the mighty Aaron Neville, pianist
James Booker, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, as well as New
Orleans native Branford Marsalis (whose own Marsalis Music label is
distributed by Rounder).

N.Y.C. BAYOU MAN: One of New Orleans’s proudest sons, Wynton
Marsalis, not only used his clout to nurture the relief effort, but
also became an articulate N’Awlins talking head. Marsalis has been
deeply plugged into Manhattan for many years, most recently having
been the point-man behind the massive Jazz at Lincoln Center
(actually at Columbus Circle now), celebrating its grand opening
last year.

Memories and imprints of New Orleans are bred in Marsalis’s
bones, musically, on various spiritual levels. Christening the new
three-venue Jazz at Lincoln Center compound last October, Marsalis
led a New Orleans jazz parade from the organization’s old home at
Lincoln Center to the new address a few blocks away. Within weeks
of Katrina’s wrath, Marsalis had organized a benefit concert at the
J@LC’s Rose Theater, on September 17, for broadcast on PBS. Now
comes the CD version, Higher Ground, Hurricane Relief Benefit
Concert (Blue Note). Charitable virtue aside, the album is a live
primer in why we all should miss New Orleans.

Marsalis rounded up an all-star cast for the concert, including
the white-but-good likes of Diana Krall, James Taylor, and Norah
Jones, who offers a cool, beauteous take on Randy Newman’s “I Think
It’s Gonna Rain Today.” We also get a cameo by tenor sax great Joe
Lovano, whose “Blackwell’s Message” pays tribute to late, great New
Orleans-born drummer Ed Blackwell, who played with Ornette Coleman
as well as more traditional corners of jazz and Louisianan music.
The track features another vital New Orleans-ian native drummer,
Idris Muhammad, who recently dazzled the Lobero crowd with Ahmad

Art and Aaron Neville kick up the unofficial N’Awlins anthem,
“Go to the Mardi Gras,” always a good idea, whether literally or
symbolically. (Got e?


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