Since 1993 Putumayo World Music has been functioning as an international goodwill ambassador, introducing listeners to musical genres from around the world like a modern-day Alan Lomax. The region of the United States that has received the most coverage by them is the state of Louisiana, which has a number of great musical traditions.
In 2000, they released Zydeco. Jude Taylor, who appears with His Burning Flames on the instrumental “Burin’ Flames Special,” describes zydeco music that originated from the French-speaking Creoles as good as anyone when he says it’s “a little jazz, a little blues, a little rock ‘n’ roll, Cajun, all mixed up.” It’s peppy and upbeat, and for those not from the area, the sounds are both unique and familiar. It features the accordion and the rubboard or frottoir.
This album is a compilation of 13 tracks by legends and torchbearers, which is exemplified by current stars Keith Frank and the Soileau Zydeco Band as they cover “Co Fa,” a song recorded in 1929 by the first Creole star Amede Ardoin. Frank updates the sound by giving it a reggae beat.
The album is anchored by a four-song block by giants of the genre. The former king, Clifton Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band deliver “Calinda” a wonderful toe-tapper that he sings in Creole French. Blues guitarist Elvin Bishop joins him for the track from 1973. Chenier left an indelible mark on zydeco by designing the first vest rubboard.
Queen Ida, the first female to lead a zydeco band and the first zydeco artist to win a Grammy under Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording, covers the Fats Domino hit “My Girl Josephine.” She changes the lyrics to tell a slightly different story. Buckwheat Zydeco, the first zydeco to sign with a major label, used to play organ in Chenier’s band. Here, he shows the accordion’s versatility by giving the blues treatment to Chenier’s “I’m on the Wonder.” A contemporary of Chenier, Boozoo Chavis & the Majic Sounds play “Lula Lula Don’t You Go To Bingo,” a funny warning about losing “your money” and “your honey.”
The album closes with two artists putting their spin on covers. Joe K K and Zydeco Force mine the same material from which Muddy Waters created “Hoochie Coochie Man” and Chris Ardoin, a descendant of Amede, & Double Cluthin’ segue into Musical Youth’s pop-reggae hit “Pass the Dutchie.”
New Orleans from 2005 provides a similar mix of talent to honor the Crescent City. Kermit Ruffins, who helped spark the brass-band revival in the ‘80s, opens with “Drop Me Off in New Orleans,” a love song that captures the senses of the city with his brassy horn ringing out, singing about red beans and mustard greens.
If there was only one musician picked to represent the city, it would have to be Louis Armstrong. His selection is taken from near the end of his career, a 1966 recording of “Tin Roof Blues” where is gruff, raspy vocal is contrasted by the slow, sweet sound of his horn.
The generation gap is bridged with artists joining forces on the album. In 1997 Doc Cheatham and Nicholas Payton deliver a wonderful version of “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues.” Cheatham sings, and their trumpets, Cheatham’s muted, dance together in unison. At Preservation Hall traditional New Orleans jazz is kept alive, and the Preservation Hall Hot 4 joins a former mainstay of the place, Duke Dejan, for “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” a song made all the more pleasant by the vocal stylings of someone who sounds like Harry Connick Jr.
With Spencer Williams’ 1928 “Basin Street Blues” the listener gets to hear what artists can do with material as two very different, but two very good versions appear: Louis Prima’s swinging big-band version with the sax and his trumpet taking turns on the lead and Dr. John’s piano-led, slow rambling jaunt that features the clarinet. For some reason Prima’s version is faded out early rather than being allowed to come to its end.
This album closes out with a couple of numbers by Dr. Michael White that capture the feel of a parade, a city tradition. “Give It Up (Gypsy Second Line)” starts with his clarinet and then the rest of the band join in with a marching beat. Midway through, the drums take the lead and the band makes a triumphant return. On “Bye Bye/Saints” Gregg Stafford joins the doctor a combo of two traditional numbers including the city’s unofficial anthem, “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,” which is regularly played at jazz funerals.
New Orleans’ liner notes include resource information about the city and chef Paul Prudhomme’s Seafood Gumbo recipe.
2006’s New Orleans Playground is on the Putumayo Kids label and delivers a quick 30-minute set. It features a number of songs that were rhythm-and-blues hits from the ‘50s and ‘60s by New Orleans artists. Lee Dorsey “Ya Ya,” Chris Kenner “I Like it Like That,” and Fats Domino “Whole Lotta Lovin” are all very familiar hits for fans of oldies radio stations.
The kids should get a kick out of silly songs like Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s unusual vocals on “Ain’t Got No Home,” all the animals talking on The Meters’ “They All Ask’d for You,” and Kermit Ruffins trying to get the kids who only want to eat sweets to eat right on “Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner”
The kids get a sample of zydeco with Clifton Chenier’s “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” and its driving beat and Buckwheat Zydeco’s “Skip to My Blues,” a take on the “Skip to My Lou.” They also get to hear some New Orleans sounds as Charmaine Neville calls people out to the “Second Line,” and Hack Bartholomew leads the way on his version of “When the Saints….”
New Orleans Brass from 2007 celebrates horn players with more of a focus on modern-day players as they carry on the tradition. It opens with James and Troy Andrews’ “Bourbon Street Parade.” They trade leads on trumpet and trombone, there’s scat singing, and then it closes with a big finish by the band known as a “ride-out ending.” The Yockamo All-Stars’ “Blow Blow Tenor” lets the spotlight shine on the rich, heavy sound of the sax that was a mainstay of ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll.
Leroy Jones covers “Whoopin’ Blues,” a King Oliver tune. The drum drives the rhythm and the tuba adds great breadth to the song. John Butte covers the traditional spiritual “I’ll Fly Away” with the horns propelling his spirit. Glen Andrews & The Lazy Six play the gospel number “Over In The Gloryland.” His trombone takes the lead, and maybe it’s because the instrument has gotten such little attention on the album, but the bass really stands out as it lays down some mean licks during its solo. Bob French’s Original Tuxedo Jazz Band do a fantastic job giving the jazz funeral treatment to the classic “St. James Infirmary Blues” with trumpeter Leon “Kid Chocolate” Brown on vocals.
The previous generation gets a moment in the spotlight as The Dirty Dozen Brass Band with Dr. John play “It’s All Over Now.” Written by Bobby and Shirley Womack, it became The Rolling Stones first number-one hit in the UK. Rather than being sad the relationship is over, the music is joyous and triumphant as the narrator has moved on.
Frequent Putumayo contributor Kermit Ruffins delivers a great party tune with “Treme Second Line (Blow Da Whistle)” that calls everyone out into the streets to march in the parade. Then The Dukes Of Dixieland close it down with the ubiquitous “Saints (Street Beat).” The CD includes a video for “Do they Play Jazz in Heaven” by Ingrid Lucia, Irvin Mayfield and The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.
For those who can’t make the trip and need to bring Louisiana home to them, Putumayo does a very good job capturing the sounds of the region with the titles on their label.