By: Jessica Lopa
The Blind Boys of Alabama's Down In New Orleans (released January 29th by Time Life Entertainment) showcases how music, together with praise and faith, translates into a hardy whole. The Blind Boys' vast repertoire spans decades and their newest release includes contributions from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Allen Toussaint and the New Orleans-based Hot 8 Brass Band. With its twelve tracks, each one a definitive expression of the ageless story of an honest life and its reaping, Down in New Orleans is a positive force characterized by a wealth of musical ability.
The new album rewards listeners with a revival of gospel and spiritual songs ("I'll Fly Away," "Down by the Riverside") deeply rooted in America's framework. The opening track, "Free At Last" pairs organ and piano to create a nice contrast of textures over a staggered groove in an arrangement that still leaves room to breathe. Jimmy Carter leads the final chorus with spirited shouts, setting the precedent for the rest of the album's zealous improvisation.
The bluesy melody of "How I Got Over" is complimented with a call-and-response format that affirms the value of thankfulness. On the upbeat "You've Got to Move," Bishop Billy Bowers reminds us to look at our actions and of the importance of keeping a lively pace in our emotional and spiritual lives. With his preacher nuances, the arrangement is demanding and uplifting over acoustic accompaniment.
"Across the Bridge" features Carter on lead vocals with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. It opens with the chorus at the top of the tune, as the music swells with the addition of blissful Dixieland trumpet during the song's bridge. The refrain combines vocal chromatic harmonies with an artful balance of instrumentation, which manages not to overshadow the lilting melody's creative handling.
Perhaps the most endearing tracks, "If I Could Help Someone" and "A Prayer," highlight the flawless intonation of the Blind Boys. The former includes the musical styling of Allen Toussiant. "If I Could Help Someone" evolves as Toussaint follows Carter through ambitious and skillful phrasing. The two musicians compliment each other by closely listening to one another. Carter extends notes through chord changes, as his musical instincts reveal the color and beauty of the melody. Bishop Billy Bowers, Ben Moore and Eric McKinnie share verses on the moving "A Prayer." Drummer McKinnie's smooth vocals and crooner style, although underplayed on this record, shows the huge range between the singers from bass through tenor, alto and falsetto. Building hierarchic harmonies seems like second nature to the Blind Boys. Each song is executed with a great sense of rhythmic flexibility and melodic intensity.
"I've Got A Home" shows the Blind Boys evoking the spirit over a fast tempo. The song migrates from the initial close knit, barbershop style harmonies to the romping end section full of bible quotes and spontaneity in less than three minutes. With clever engineering and mixing, the harmonies of the Blind Boys' are combined with the Hot 8 Brass Band on the closing track, "I'll Fly Away." A colorful horn arrangement open the tune and an inspired trombone solo hits mid-song, helping to set the mood high on this closing track.
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