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Songs for the Soul

The cream of the crop of hurricane-relief CDs



Various Artists
Our New Orleans 2005
(Nonesuch Records)

Under different circumstances, part of the roster of participating artists in this collection of newly recorded tracks would drive New Orleans music purists crazy. They'd complain that Cajun and zydeco music don't come from the Crescent City and would be indignant about the inclusion of BeauSoleil and Buckwheat Zydeco at the expense of New Orleans artists. But at a time when all hands are needed on deck, BeauSoleil's roiling "L'Ouragon" ("The Hurricane") and Buckwheat Zydeco's dirge "Cryin' in the Streets" are reminders that our common musical ground outweighs our differences.

Optimism abounds with Allen Toussaint's thumping new version of his 1970s composition "Yes We Can Can," its lyrics of harmony and cooperation never more appropriate. Things get darker when Irma Thomas recasts Bessie Smith's "Backwater Blues" as a scabrous hard blues, breathing new emotional resonance into the lyrics of broken levees.

The Wardell Quezergue Orchestra's re-recording Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" as an instrumental powered by a full string section, with Donald Harrison's alto sax taking the lead, is another fresh departure. Other takes on standards turn familiar warhorses into mission statements; listen to Eddie Bo's defiant "When the Saints Go Marching In" and the displaced Preservation Hall Jazz Band bringing its post-Katrina evacuation experience to "Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans."

In that same vein, the most moving cut is "Tipitina and Me," Toussaint's new version of the rollicking Professor Longhair piano anthem. Cut here as an instrumental, Toussaint morphs the signature syncopated intro into a brooding, minor-key lament reminiscent of the gothic-tinged compositions of 19th century composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk.

Various Artists
Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert
(Blue Note Records)

While other hurricane-relief CDs like the two-CD set, Come Together (featuring mainstream stars like Faith Hill and Coldplay), will surely raise more money for the cause, this live recording is the most poignant reminder of New Orleans' landmark contribution to American music. This concert recorded at New York's Lincoln Center (where Wynton Marsalis is artistic director) has the biggest dose of jazz -- in myriad forms -- of any of the current relief CDs.

Opening with Shirley Caesar and Eric Reed's stomping gospel anthem "This Joy" as an invitation, trumpeter Terence Blanchard steps up and renders a lush melancholy version of "Over There." Former Marsalis bandmate Marcus Roberts commandeers the piano for a biting, syncopated run through Jelly Roll Morton's "New Orleans Blues," underscoring the often blurry line between Big Easy jazz and blues. In one of the disc's emotionally charged moments, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield -- whose father was missing at the time of the concert and later found dead from the flood -- unfurls a reach-for-the-heavens dramatic solo on the spiritual standard "Just a Closer Walk with Thee." And New Orleans' musical Jordan family reunites with rooftop rescuee Marlon Jordan for a stirring performance of the wistful ballad "Here's to Life."

For a sense of history, Wynton Marsalis' Hot Seven blows through a breathless take on legendary trad-jazz cornetist King Oliver's "Dippermouth Blues," the full horn and reed section sprinting next to the banjo and rhythm section parts. And Aaron Neville's shout-outs to the Ninth Ward, Seventh Ward, Treme and the Mardi Gras Indians in a version of "Go to the Mardi Gras" (accompanied by brother Art on keyboard) are simultaneously rousing and chilling.

There are a few missteps -- Bette Midler's oversized Broadway persona is a poor fit for the proceedings, for example -- but overall it's a stirring program. And for sheer unexpected emotion, songbird Norah Jones' gutwrenching solo version of Randy Newman's "I Think it's Going to Rain Today" conveys the loneliness, despair and glimmers of hope of the last four months.

Dr. John and the Lower 911
Sippiana Hericane
(Blue Note Records)

Mac Rebennack's psychedelic swamp-hoodoo growl and the stutter-funk of his longtime band 911 band have always been a tonic, but the 27-minute long EP, Sippiana Hericane, isn't Dr. John's strongest medicine. He bookends the CD with a cover of longtime friend and fellow Louisiana iconoclast Bobby Charles' "Clean Water," putting the song's original anti-pollution and coastal-restoration message in a new light. Noble thought, but the song's plodding tempo doesn't fit the Night Tripper. And a similar attempt to retool "Sweet Home New Orleans," a Rebennack original recorded for his 1998 album, Anutha Zone, yields few fresh revelations. (He could have plucked "Hello God" wholesale from the same album and made a stronger statement about how messed up the world seems these days.)

But Doctor aficionados and neophytes alike will want the EP for Rebennack's "Wade: Hurricane Suite," a four-part movement freshly composed for the album. In its four sections ("Storm Warning," "Storm Surge," "Calm in the Storm" and "Wade in the Water"), you can almost feel Rebennack in the studio wrestling his emotions into music. Each part feels like a song sketch, alternately capturing waves of anger with the drum crescendoes and Hammond B-3 waves of "Storm Warning" and achieving a sense of stillness in the languorous piano stroll of "Calm in the Storm." And when the band starts chanting "Coming back / stronger than ever" in "Aftermath," it's emblematic of the gritty defiance and keep-on-keepin'-on spirit that's sustaining post-Katrina New Orleans.

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