WHY DOES Louisiana boast one of the most distinctive local music scenes in the United States? Because average working-class folks of all ages still go out there on a Saturday night to drink and dance to the sound of Zydeco, Cajun, second-line R&B, old Southern soul, hard-bop and brass band music. As long as bars and parish halls still hire these traditional bands, another generation of musicians will learn the music.
Here are some of the most interesting recent records from Louisiana: JOHNNY ADAMS -- "After Dark" (Rounder 2049). Adams, who works in the tradition of Al Green and Percy Sledge and is known as New Orleans' "Tan Nightingale," is one of the most underrated southern soul stylists. But this new album offers only occasional glimpses of his remarkably agile and expressive voice. Side two gets buried under producer Scott Billington's soul cliches, but side one often crackles with the give-and-take between Adams' unpredictable voice and Wayne Bennett's bluesy guitar. The highlight is a grand version of "I Don't Know You" (written by the Doctors John and Pomus), which finds Adams plumbing the mysteries of love with whispered questions and falsetto whoops.
ALVIN (RED) TYLER -- "Heritage" (Rounder, 2047). Tyler is the Buck Hill of New Orleans, a great jazz tenor saxophonist who gave up wider recognition to take a day job and raise a family. Though Tyler is best known for his arrangements and baritone sax parts on Fats Domino records, he has always played straight-ahead jazz with locals like Ellis (Papa) Marsalis. On this album, Tyler displays the hard-bop side of his music with a fine young rhythm section and six swinging original instrumentals. Johnny Adams joins them for a splendid vocal on "I'll Only Miss Her When I Think of Her," and Germaine Bazzle (New Orleans' equivalent of Betty Carter) does the same on "Lush Life."
COUSIN JOE -- "Relaxin' in New Orleans" (Great Southern GS 11011). New Orleans is a piano town, and 78-year-old Cousin Joe is one of its least recognized practitioners. Though he employs the second-line rhythms of most Crescent City keyboardists, Cousin Joe composes songs in the Memphis blues style. His lyrics are irreverent, funny commentaries on women, work and the world at large; he surrounds these one-liners with grandly flourished blues piano phrases.
JOHN DELAFOSE -- "Zydeco Excitement" (Maison de Soul LP-1015). Delafose, who hails from Eunice, is the James Brown of southwest Louisiana's Zydeco circuit: That is, his band is so relentlessly rhythmic it becomes hypnotic. On his new album, Delafose plays his easygoing, melodic accordion riffs and warbles his simple, singalong vocals, while his two sons, on drums and scrubboard, knock out a tricky, heavily accented dance beat. Though the sound on this record is rather muddy at times, the tunes do include Delafose's latest addition to the Joe Pete folk myth (a sort of Andy Capp character), a radical rearrangement of "Toot Toot," and a raucous version of "Nobody but Me."
PAUL DAIGLE -- With Robert Elkins & Cajun Gold: "Paul Daigle, Robert Elkins & Cajun Gold" (Swallow LP-6060). This quintet from Church Point is part of the new generation of Cajun bands that are replacing the familiar but aging masters. Daigle is a fluid, highly melodic accordionist, and Elkins is a disarmingly good-natured vocalist. Though the band lacks the virtuoso flash of Beau Soleil, this record boasts 10 impressive originals written by producer Pierre V. Daigle. His melodies are enchanting, and his lyrics alternate between poetic regret and witty impishness; on one song he vows to die so his ghost can come back and haunt the man who stole his wife. It's encouraging that such strong songs are still being added to the repertoire.