Higher Ground benefit concert reviewed on New York Times

Marsalis Leads a Charge for the Cradle of Jazz

True to New Orleans ritual, “Higher Ground” — the benefit for Hurricane Katrina relief at the Rose Theater on Saturday night — opened with a processional and wound up with a parade.

Wynton Marsalis, the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which presented the show, is from New Orleans and has always brought a justifiable hometown pride to his programs. He has also stocked the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with musicians who learned New Orleans style at the source. The five-hour concert mixed affirmation, mourning and glints of anger at the devastation of the cradle of jazz. (It was slightly compressed for broadcast on PBS and NPR, and is being repeated on many stations.)

The concert’s most touching moment was a performance by the New Orleans trumpeter Irvin Mayfield. His father, he said, is still among the missing. He played “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” the hymn that becomes both dirge and celebration at New Orleans funerals. From a hushed, sustained, almost tearful beginning, it turned more assertive and ornate, with growls and extended slides, determined to rise above sorrow.

The actor Laurence Fishburne, a New Orleans resident, was the host. Between songs, he read historical and literary tributes to the city. He also said it had endured “a plague of light-fingered politicians” and “generations of malign neglect from Baton Rouge and Washington.” Elvis Costello, who performed with the New Orleans songwriter Allen Toussaint, noted that some conservatives were already warning about the cost of rebuilding the city. “An effort like this can never be too expensive,” he declared.

The program interspersed New Orleans standards — Aaron Neville and Mr. Toussaint sharing “Go to the Mardi Gras,” Diana Krall singing a relaxed, sultry “Basin Street Blues” — with other songs transformed by the context. The pianist Herbie Hancock led a trio in his “Eye of the Hurricane,” a jagged, shifting tune he played with percussive intensity.

Female singers reached for somber redemption. Cassandra Wilson, who is from Mississippi, sang a richly reverent “Come Sunday,” and Abbey Lincoln sang “For All We Know” in hovering, elegiac slow motion. Stephanie Jordan, the singer in a musical family from New Orleans, made “Here’s to Life” sound wounded but determined. Norah Jones sang Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” with melancholy modesty. RenĂ©e Fleming sang “Amazing Grace” with just a hint of operatic inflection. Bette Midler, however, made the odd choice of the cynical “Is That All There Is?”

Mr. Marsalis led small and large groups, sketching a long New Orleans continuum from King Oliver’s “Dipper Mouth Blues” to his own swinging big-band piece “Back to Basics” (with a whinnying plunger-muted solo) to modal jazz with members of his family.

The pianist Marcus Roberts played his “New Orleans Blues,” riffling elegantly through styles from gospel to stride to rumba to modern jazz. Terence Blanchard, a trumpeter and film composer originally from New Orleans, led a composition steeped in melancholy dignity. The saxophonist Joe Lovano played “Blackwell’s Message,” dedicated to a drummer from New Orleans.

Paul Simon played his zydeco-based “That Was Your Mother” backed by the Louisiana accordionist Buckwheat Zydeco, while James Taylor offered his metaphysical “Never Die Young.” Others chose songs with social concerns. Jon Hendricks sang a bossa nova with a political accusation, “Tell Me the Truth,” and Mr. Costello reached for the anguish and fervor in Mr. Toussaint’s song “Freedom for the Stallion.” Dianne Reeves poured her voice into the didactic “The House I Live In.” And the pianist and singer Peter Cincotti introduced a new song, “Bring Back New Orleans.”

To begin and end the concert, Mr. Marsalis chose parade tunes that were modern takes on New Orleans tradition: “Ain No,” rooted in Mardi Gras chants, and Duke Ellington’s “Second Line.” The finale turned into a handkerchief-waving parade through the aisles and back to the stage for a loose, raucous jam that continued after much of the audience had left — the kind of neighborhood party that’s at the heart of New Orleans music. Now it’s uncertain whether those neighborhoods will ever return.

POP REVIEW Correction: September 21, 2005, Wednesday A pop review on Monday about a Hurricane Katrina benefit at the Rose Theater in New York misidentified the composer of “New Orleans Blues,” played by the pianist Marcus Roberts. It is by Jelly Roll Morton, not Mr. Roberts.

by Jon Pareles
Source: New York Times

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