There are nearly 10 benefit albums with Hurricane Katrina on their minds, and doubtless more are coming. Bring 'em on. In theory, at least, when it comes to raising relief funds through music, everyone wins.
"Our New Orleans 2005: A Benefit Album" and "Higher Ground: Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert" stand out in the crowd. If their hearts and intentions lie in similar places, their execution reveals considerable differences. "Higher Ground," a live recording of a Jazz at Lincoln Center fundraiser in September, documents a generally satisfying evening featuring a multifarious musical crew -- everyone from Bette Midler, Joe Lovano and Shirley Caesar to Norah Jones, Wynton Marsalis and James Taylor performing a diverse repertoire connected only by a thin theme of life affirmation as expressed in song. "Our New Orleans," in distinct contrast, ropes together artists with New Orleans roots to record studio versions of idiomatic Big Easy anthems and tunes addressing the tragedy head-on. Both albums are rife with stirring performances, but the unity of "Our New Orleans" packs a far greater emotional punch.
The subtle hands of a few smart producers are all over the "Our New Orleans" project. Joe Henry allows the iconic singer, pianist and fellow producer Allen Toussaint to do what he does best: sell a performance through understated grace and casual instrumental brilliance. A definitive "Yes We Can Can" injects the album straight off with funky positivity, while his solo instrumental, "Tipitina and Me," gently evokes the spirits of Big Easy piano legends like Professor Longhair and James Booker.
Henry also hooks up the ever-majestic Irma Thomas with guitarist Doyle Bramhall II for a surprisingly successful, rock-infused take on Bessie Smith's 1927 "Backwater Blues." That mournful narrative, in tandem with Randy Newman's closing "Louisiana 1927," its intimations of political indifference intact, remind us that history, both natural and social, has a nasty way of repeating itself.
Producers Hal Willner and Mark Bingham elicit a world-weary eloquence from Dr. John on "World I Never Made" and a haunting "Prayer for New Orleans" from Charlie Miller, his voice, accompanied only by his own trumpet, as forlorn as a lone flood survivor clinging to the last dry spot in town. A bone-chilling "Cryin' in the Streets" by Buckwheat Zydeco, supported by guitarist and producer Ry Cooder, distinguishes itself among arresting performances from BeauSoleil, Eddie Bo, Davell Crawford and others.
The less-obvious artists who populate "Higher Ground" triumph through a quiet intensity that matches or surpasses that of the New Orleans natives.
In a solo, "Never Die Young," James Taylor relies on the offhand eloquence of his undiminished singing and guitar playing. Norah Jones also comes on restrained yet packs a sly punch with Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going to Rain Today," its blend of irony and pathos as potent as ever. Irony raises its deliciously brittle head again in Bette Midler's "Is That All There Is?" (That this performance also acted as a preview for Midler's then-forthcoming Peggy Lee tribute album makes you wonder about even the best of intentions, though.)
The most impressive performances are those unburdened by self-conscious New Orleans trappings. Trumpeter Terence Blanchard's stately "Over There" (composed by his bassist, Derrick Hodge) expresses its message of pity and perseverance solely through vivid instrumental means. Pianist Marcus Roberts updates Jelly Roll Morton's "New Orleans Blues," skillfully avoiding cliches. And Irvin Mayfield, dueting with pianist Ronald Markham, renders "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" with a dignity enhanced by the relative suppression of the trumpeter's impressive technique. Dianne Reeves deserves extra points for saving the slobbery patriotic anthem "The House I Live In" through her focus and bravura vocalizing.
A few of the heavy hitters strike out. Diana Krall sounds unconvincing on "Basin Street Blues," Wynton Marsalis and his "Hot Seven" strained on "Dippermouth Blues," and Joe Lovano less emphatic than usual on "Blackwell's Message."
Cassandra Wilson rights all wrongs, though, on the album's capper, a rendition of Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday" enriched by Mark O'Connor's gorgeous violin solo and obbligato. Ellington's simple plea to a higher power says all that still needs to be said: "Please look down and see my people through."