The Blind Boys of Alabama
“Down in New Orleans” (Time Life)
* * * 1/2
The former president isn’t the only Jimmy Carter who’s done some work for Habitat for Humanity. Another gentleman with the same name visited the organization’s New Orleans Musicians’ Village last year with some associates to help rebuild that hurricane-devastated city -- though not with the usual tools.
“We told the people we can’t see how to use a hammer and nail,” said this Carter, co-founder of the venerable gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama. “But we can bring hope with our music. And that’s what we did.”
Carter and the Blind Boys were in town not just to provide inspiration, though, but to draw some as well. The result is “Down in New Orleans,” the latest in a string of intriguing collaborative concept projects from the group, which has become known for reaching outside its traditions while remaining true to the vocal-quartet style at its core since the original lineup formed at school in 1939.
In theory it’s a natural. Gospel is crucial in nearly all New Orleans music. Several songs on this set (“Down by the Riverside,” “Uncloudy Day,” “I’ll Fly Away”) are standards in the second-line and Dixieland repertoires of the tradition-minded Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the young, exuberant Hot 8 Brass Band.
Both provide backing on the project, as does long-time NOLA music giant Allen Toussaint. But the Big Easy rhythms, deceptively complex syncopations and shifting patterns can be tricky.
“Only thing I can say is they have a rhythm, they have a beat,” says Carter, trying to put his finger on the musical challenge they encountered. “I can’t really explain it -- a beat that’s unique. But once you learn how to follow that beat, you got it going on, man!”
At that, he breaks out in a hearty, raspy laugh.
The learning process shows a bit on “Down in New Orleans” (in stores Tuesday). Opening track “Free at Last” shows a surprisingly natural mesh between the group’s classic vocal-quartet style and the nimble second-line of an ad-hoc band of pianist David Torkanowsky, bassist Ronald Guerin and drummer Shannon Powell -- all top-notch locals. But on the next song, Earl King’s nongospel but quite fitting “Make a Better World,” the Hot 8 tames its usually wild horn-play too much, restricting the funk factor.
After that, though, it’s a rewarding mix, the singers responding to the Preservation Hall band’s jazz-funeral joy on “Uncloudy Day,” two tributes to gospel great and New Orleans native Mahalia Jackson (with Carter soaring on the healing message “If I Could Help Somebody,” supported by Toussaint’s piano) and the Hot 8 really letting loose on the closing “I’ll Fly Away.”
Carter says he absorbed a lot in New Orleans -- the food as well as the music, and he’s craving some of the red beans and hot sausage he had. But mostly he hopes the group was able to express the emotions its members encountered in the city where people are fighting to bounce back. In that regard, they nailed it.
“I talked to some people there,” he says. “Found out they don’t like to tell about it. Just trying to live and move on.”
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