When Katrina roared into the Gulf Coast last August, it not only visited a region with death and destruction, it threatened a genocidal blow to New Orleans's unique culture, a crucible for American music, art, and literature for generations. More than a quarter-year after the hurricane, recovery efforts continue to flounder amid internecine disagreement and a lack of federal commitment. The city remains sparsely populated, with vast sections uninhabitable and the levees still dangerously vulnerable, all of which jeopardizes New Orleans's survival as a cultural catalyst and as a functional city. New Orleans's musicians and their colleagues, however, began responding to the crisis while floodwaters still inundated the city. The months since have produced a steady stream of benefit concerts, albums, and new compositions inspired by the tragedy.
Less than three weeks after Katrina, New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis organized a concert at New York's Lincoln Center, highlights from which have been released as Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert (Blue Note). The album's most riveting moment is a version of "Just a Closer Walk with Thee" from trumpeter Irvin Mayfield Jr., whose father was missing at the time of the concert and was subsequently discovered drowned. Mayfield's trumpet grapples with a stunning range of emotions: grief, resignation, reflection, anger, and finally resolve. Such conflicting emotions are familiar to New Orleans musicians, renowned for playing funereal dirges while escorting the deceased to the boneyard and then whipping things into a celebratory frenzy on the way back. That blend of mourning and celebration runs through all of Higher Ground, and for that matter most of the Katrina pieces. Pianist Marcus Roberts's performance of Jelly Roll Morton's "New Orleans Blues" is full of jaunty spirit undercut with melancholy, an emotion raised to stately elegance by trumpeter Terence Blanchard on "Over There." Diana Krall's "Basin Street Blues" taps the city's sensuality, while Shirley Caesar's gospel workout "This Joy" and Marsalis's version of King Oliver's "Dippermouth Blues" are flat-out exuberant--assaults, it would seem, on sadness.
Moving beyond Higher Ground's expressions of fresh wounds, Our New Orleans: A Benefit Album for the Gulf Coast (Nonesuch) is a more considered collection of new studio recordings sandwiched between Allen Toussaint's buoying "Yes We Can Can" and Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927," the New Orleans-born songwriter's account of a previous era's deluge, and a tune so eerily prescient it has become the de facto Katrina anthem. Here, Newman is accompanied by evacuated members of the New Orleans Philharmonic. Our New Orleans includes some radiant moments, tinged by the knowledge that many of the musicians lost virtually everything in the flood. Shrugging off the losses, trad-jazz clarinetist Michael White leads his band through a joyous version of King Oliver's "Canal Street Blues." Soul queen Irma Thomas, her home and club both swamped, takes a rare excursion into pure blues, immersing herself in a powerful reading of Bessie Smith's "Back Water Blues," while Doyle Bramhall's guitar wails in commiseration and Toussaint's piano roils with the storm's fury. Two cuts are especially poignant: the Preservation Hall Jazz Band's slow version of "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" with vocalist John Brunious savoring lyrics usually tossed offhandedly to tourists, and Toussaint's minor-key reworking of Professor Longhair's "Tipitina," which in less than three minutes captures the greatness of New Orleans and the unfathomable depths of the tragedy.
The fiercest performances are delivered by the Wild Magnolias and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, representing the two New Orleans musical phenomena most endangered by the devastation of the city's neighborhoods: the Mardi Gras Indians and brass bands. Led by Big Chief Bo Dollis's raspy vocals, the Mags roar through the standard "Brother John" with punkish urgency, while the Dozen push their party-hearty anthem "My Feet Can't Fail Me Now" to a fresh frenzy.
One of the most ambitious individual projects so far has been Dr. John's EP Sippiana Hericane (Blue Note), whose centerpiece is a four-movement suite inspired by the old spiritual "Wade in the Water." With his supple touch on the ivories and his band's taut rhythms, the suite captures the storm's turbulent power and bitter aftermath with a percolating dose of second line funk leavened with a reflective passage evoking Louis Gottschalk's syncopated Creole melodies. Irvin Mayfield's still unrecorded composition "All the Saints" also seeks to juxtapose Katrina's horror with New Orleans's resilient spirit. Mayfield, a member of Los Hombres Calientes as well as artistic director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, debuted the song with the 16-piece orchestra in late November at New Orleans's Christ Church Cathedral in front of an overflow crowd estimated at 1,200.
The most curious hurricane-inspired release to date is "Katrinalaya," Hank Williams's "Jambalaya" rewritten by New Orleans musician and junior high history teacher David "The Nac" Naccari. With a Cajun-twisted country twang, the single sometimes struggles to maintain Williams's rhyme scheme, but effectively uses humor to chase the malaise.
Such quirkiness is exactly what sets New Orleans apart from the rest of the country, making it invaluable as a cultural resource but also vulnerable to misunderstanding and neglect in the best of times. As the suffering of New Orleans continues to fade from the national consciousness and federal politicians' priorities, what sustains the place and those who love it may have to be rollicking Longhair piano triplets, the second line romp of a brass band, some Nevilles funk, the lonesome wail of a clarinet down some French Quarter alley. But an undercurrent flows through even the most uplifting songs on these albums, whispering that music and spirit might not be enough, that the Big Easy might never be either again.