Various Artists: Higher Ground: Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert (2006)
On September 17, 2005, Jazz at Lincoln Center brought together an ensemble of musicians responding to Wynton Marsalis' call to stage a benefit for victims of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. The document of that event is this CD, in which well-known mainstream stars share the stage with more obscure names, performing modern and traditional jazz, folk, gospel, zydeco and other genresa mix that pretty much embodies the spirit of the city that Marsalis calls "the true American melting pot on the insert, a reprint of a piece he wrote for Time magazine.
The album opens with "This Joy of Mine, a traditional spiritual performed with amazing soul by Shirley Caesar and Eric Reed and followed by some amazing performances: Diana Krall's on-the-money rendition of Spencer Williams' "Basin Street Blues and James Taylor's own "Never Die Young, accompanied solely by his acoustic guitar. The lyrics, which speak of seeking a higher ground, suit the occasion, as does Norah Jones' heartfelt piano-and-vocals take on Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going To Rain Today.
Another highlight is Jelly Roll Morton's "New Orleans Blues, played by the Marcus Roberts Trio, which gives the tune a boogie-like treatment. Also memorable is Aaron and Art Neville's playful take on "Go To The Mardi Gras (a track that marks Wynton Marsalis' first appearance on the disc), inviting everyone to go down south and enjoy the decadence of the Big Easy in the four days of madness that precede Lent.
For some reason, every time this country is hit by tragedy, someone performs "The House That I Live In. Although I hear no fault in Dianne Reeves' take on the song, it gives me an uneasy feeling, for it praises democracy and freedom at a time when those in power are doing so much to curb those rights. Another odd moment is Leiber/Stoller's "Is That All There Is, a tune in which the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra backs Bette Midler, who delivers a jaded vocal which sounds as if she wasn't too happy to be there. But maybe she was just translating the ambiguous feelings that the lyrics speak about.
One of the greatest moments in the album is the Jordan Family's rendition of "Here's To Life, a # 1 hit for the late Shirley Horn. The meaning of the song has an added poignancy because Marlon Jordan was rescued from the flood after a three-day rooftop trial. Also pay attention to "Dippermouth Blues, a rag performed by the Wynton Marsalis Hot Seven. The tune immediately makes you move, just as the spiritual "Just A Closer Walk With Thee by Irvin Mayfield almost brings you to tears.
The album closes with Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday, which features the husky-voiced Cassandra Wilson (backed by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra), who delivers it it with a sincerity that makes it sound as if it were her own composition.
Higher Ground deserves a careful listen. Also, the proceeds from the sale of the CD will go to the Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Fund, which benefits individuals impacted by Hurricane Katrina.
Track Listing: his Joy; Over There; Go to the Mardi Gras; Basin Street Blues; Never Die Young; The House I Live In; New Orleans Blues; I Think it's Going to Rain Today; Dippermouth Blues; I'm Gonna Love You Anyway; Is That All There Is?; Just a Closer Walk With Thee; Here's to Life; Blackwell's Message; Come Sunday.
Personnel: Wynton Marsalis, Ryan Kisor, Sean Jones, Marcus Printup, Curtis Watson: trumpet; Irvin Mayfield: trumpet (12); Terence Blanchard: trumpet (2); Marlon Jordan: trumpet (13); Wycliffe Gordon, Vincent Gardner, Andre Hayward: trombone; Kent Jordan: flute (13); Sherman Irby, Ted Nash, Wessell Anderson: alto saxophone; Brice Winston, Walter Blanding: tenor saxophone; Joe Lovano: tenor saxophone (14); Victor Goines: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Joe Temperley: baritone saxophone; Allen Toussaint, Aaron Parks, Bette Sussman, Dan Nimmer, Cyrus Chestnut: piano; Peter Martin: piano (6); Ronald Markham: piano (12); Eric Reed: piano (1); Marcus Roberts: piano (7); Norah Jones: piano & vocals (8); Michael Mathis: organ; Art Neville: organ & vocals (3); Mark O'Connor: violin (15); Rachel Jordan: violin (13); Lionel Loueke, Paul Sinegal, Olivier Scoazec: guitar; Don Vappie: banjo; Buckwheat Zydeco: accordion & vocals (10); Derrick Hodge, Reginald Veal, L. Allen Zeno, Carlos Hernandez: bass; Rodney Jordan: bass (7); Herlin Riley, Aaron Mecals, Kendrick Scott, Gerard S. Julian, Ali Jackson, Idris Muhammed: drums; Jason Marsalis: drums (7); Dianne Reeves: vocals (6); Diana Krall: vocals (4); Cassandra Wilson: vocals (15); James Taylor: vocals & acoustic guitar (5); Stephanie Jordan: vocals (13); Shirley Caesar: vocals (1); Bette Midler: vocals (11); Aaron Neville: vocals (3); Bernard Sterling, Gene Conyers, Donald Gore: background vocals.