Blind Boys of Alabama
Down in New Orleans
By Geoffrey Himes
At the 1990 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the hometown’s top gospel act, the Zion Harmonizers, was doing its customary second-Sunday set in the Gospel Tent, when the group’s leader Sherman Washington called up a guest from the grassy backstage. Aaron Neville climbed the wooden steps in white slacks, a red-knit shirt and shades, seized the mic and sang Sam Cooke’s “He’s So Wonderful” in a honeyed tenor that fluttered up into falsetto scatting as if Neville were Cooke himself and the Harmonizers were the Soul Stirrers.
The Blind Boys of Alabama
It was a thrilling moment, and it reminded everyone that black gospel music has always been lurking behind the jazz and R&B that New Orleans is best known for. The city is, after all, the birthplace of Mahalia Jackson, and the jazz funerals where most of the local horn players and drummers cut their teeth are religious ceremonies. Neville, like many local singers, found himself pulled between gospel and R&B, as much as Cooke ever did. New Orleans deserves its reputation as a capital of hedonism, but if the greasy dance rhythms of its funk and Dixieland weren’t countered by the earnest ache of gospel, the city’s R&B and jazz wouldn’t carry as much weight as they do.
So the new album from the Blind Boys of Alabama, Down in New Orleans, is more than just another gimmick to bring the aging singers one more payday. It makes obvious the usually hidden relationship between New Orleans’ churches and nightclubs. The Blind Boys, formed in 1938 at Alabama’s Talledega Institute for the Deaf and Blind, were major players in the “quartet” style of black gospel singing in the 1950s, but until this project they’ve had little to do with Crescent City music. As they make the adjustment to swampy syncopation, they reveal the crucial differences between mainstream gospel and New Orleans gospel. And as the Louisiana musicians back up the Alabama singers, it becomes obvious how much those players have always been influenced by the church.
Backing the Blind Boys, a septet these days despite its “quartet” style of singing, is the New Orleans trio of keyboardist David Torkanowsky (from the city’s terrific fusion band Astral Project), Harry Connick Jr.’s former drummer Shannon Powell and Roland Guerin, ex-bassist for Marcus Roberts and Mark Whitfield. Joining on two or three tracks apiece are the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Allen Toussaint and the Hot 8 Brass Band. Thus we get to hear gospel colliding with a modern-jazz trio, the legends of Dixieland, an R&B master and a street-parade group.
The album begins with a swell of Torkanowsky’s B3 organ, backed by Powell’s and Guerin’s push-and-pull. The raspy voice of Jimmy Carter, the Blind Boys’ senior member since Clarence Fountain’s retirement, takes up the traditional hymn, “Free at Last,” forever associated with Martin Luther King Jr. but never before funked up like this. The groove lends a lively playfulness to the declaration of liberation, but the song’s sentiments also lend some substance to the party music. Both sides benefit, and Torkanowsky overdubs a nifty jazz-piano solo in the middle of the gospel-soul arrangement.
No one combined playfulness and substance better than Earl King, the best songwriter to ever come out of New Orleans. When King asks us to “Make a Better World,” he’s asking not only for an end to war, poverty and discrimination, but also for a beginning to hip-swiveling dancing. If the Blind Boys’ old-school church harmonies are perfect for the former wish, the Hot 8 Brass Band’s raucous horns and drums are perfect for the latter. When the Preservation Hall Jazz Band backs the Blind Boys on a swinging arrangement of “Uncloudy Day,” the simultaneous shouting of the horns, not unlike the Hot 8’s, bears an unmistakable resemblance to “quartet” singing.
“If I Could Help Somebody,” one of the two Mahalia Jackson numbers on the album, is an unaccompanied duet between Carter’s tenor and Toussaint’s piano. Carter is not the singer he was 50 years ago and Fountain’s lungpower is sorely missed, but Carter’s fierce commitment to the song is undeniable. And the way Toussaint reworks the standard gospel changes with hints of jazz substitutions and classical quotes suggests Cyrus Chestnut’s similar bridging of gospel and jazz.
It’s not a perfect recording. None of the current Blind Boys is a standout singer, and producer Chris Goldsmith keeps the musicians from venturing very far from the given melody and changes. But the Blind Boys’ personal connection to an older strain of gospel singing gives their performances an imposing weight, and the musicians’ reined-in jazz chops give their playing a nervous tension.
Jazz lists its birthplace as New Orleans, and the local gospel tradition there must be acknowledged in the genealogy. Perhaps the new music was an illegitimate offspring, for both jazz and gospel have been reluctant to admit their kinship, but the evidence is there for everyone to hear on Down in New Orleans. And both sides of the family are better off for it.