Yes We Can Can: Our New Orleans 2005, featuring Allen Toussaint; and Harry Connick Jr.’s 2007 Oh My NOLA

By Daniel Garrett

Various artists,
including Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas,
and Buckwheat Zydeco
Our New Orleans 2005
Nonesuch/Warner Music, 2005

Harry Connick Jr.
Oh My NOLA
Arranged, orchestrated,
and conducted by Harry Connick Jr.
Produced by Tracey Freeman
Executive Producer: Ann Marie Wilkins
Sony, 2007

Now is the time for all good men to get together with one another, iron out our problems, and iron out their quarrels, and try to live as brothers, and try to find a peace within, without stepping on one another. And do respect the women of the world. Just remember we all had mothers. Make this land a better land than the world in which we live, and help each man be a better man, with the kindness that you give. I know we can make it, I know darn well we can work it out. Oh yes we can, I know we can can. Yes we can can. Why can’t we, if we wanna, yes we can can. The Pointer Sisters used to sing “Yes We Can Can” in the 1970s and this song is being sung a lot now: it is on the Our New Orleans 2005 anthology and also on Harry Connick Jr.’s year 2007 recording Oh My NOLA. The song “Yes We Can Can” was written by Allen Toussaint, who performs it on Our New Orleans 2005. Allen Toussaint goes back, way back, and his work includes The Wild Sound of New Orleans (1958), From a Whisper to a Scream (1970), featuring “Working in the Coal Mine,” and Life, Love and Faith (1972), Southern Nights (1975), Motion (1978), Mr. New Orleans (1995), and A Taste of New Orleans (1999); and, with Elvis Costello, The River in Reverse (2006). On Our New Orleans 2005, which opens with Toussaint’s rousing performance of “Yes We Can Can,” is a collection with contributions from Dr. John, Irma Thomas, Davell Crawford, Buckwheat Zydeco, Dr. Michael White, Wild Magnolias, Eddie (Bo) Bocage, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Carol Fran, BeauSoleil, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Charlie Miller, the Wardell Quezergue Orchestra, and Randy Newman with the Louisiana Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic. Toussaint’s voice is softly inflected, masculine, and neither heavy nor light, somewhere in between, with a nice firmness and tone, and he sings “Yes We Can Can” supported by vivid percussion, amid an appealingly idiosyncratic rhythm. The song has become just weeks ago, and now, one of my favorites.

Malcolm John Rebennack Jr., better known to music lovers as Dr. John, performs “World I Never Made” on Our New Orleans 2005, with a slow, dragging voice, a character voice, serious yet comic, accompanied by piano; and it is a song about feeling adrift: “I’m a stranger and afraid in a world I never made.” Irma Thomas retrieves an old Bessie Smith song, “Back Water Blues,” and I think James Baldwin, who loved Bessie Smith, would like Thomas’s version: she is a witness to a terrible event, a disastrous storm and flood—and she doesn’t embellish, she simply testifies. The gospel song “Gather By the River” is performed by the woman singer and pianist Davell Crawford with a large, warm voice, a voice of sorrow and sympathy. Somebody marching in the streets, crying in the streets, and praying in the streets, are the three soundings, the three movements, that occur in the song “Cryin’ in the Streets,” sung by Stanley Dural Jr., known as Buckwheat Zydeco, in a raw voice. Singing of a street march, and supported by Ry Cooder’s sadly twanging guitar, and also drums and piano, Buckwheat Zydeco offers one of the most pleasing songs in the collection.

A jazzy interpretation of the blues, brassy and fast, is Dr. Michael White’s “Canal Street Blues,” and the band Wild Magnolias creates a party atmosphere with “Brother John Is Gone/ Herc-Jolly-John.” With piano, and a laid-back voice (a Louisiana approach?), Eddie Bo performs “When the Saints Go Marching In” and there is a chanting vocal rhythm in the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s “My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now.” These are renderings of traditional sounds that will stir the nostalgia of some, while those who hear the energy in the songs will be pleased that people are still playing this music. Carol Fran sings in Creole French and English in a feminine voice with a wail to it, asking again and again “Where were you last night?” Beausoleil’s “L’Ouragon” is terrific—with a lot of charming force and texture—and the song, which has a title that is translated into English as “The Hurricane,” reminds me a little of Irish music (I guess rhythm is the basic resemblance in various forms of folk music).

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band does “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” and Charlie Miller explores “Prayer for New Orleans” with melancholy, scrapping trumpet lines, and whinnying that reminded me of an animal, before unexpectedly articulating a note in the purest tone: it is an illustration of trouble and transcendence. Although the Wardell Quezergue Orchestra, featuring saxophonist Donald Harrison, performs “What a Wonderful World” with a lot of instruments, the interpretation is not brassy and has a rich sound of strings and a lot of beauty. The last the listener hears of Our New Orleans 2005 is Allen Toussaint’s performance of “Tipitina and Me” and Randy Newman’s collaboration with members of the Louisiana and the New York Philharmonic orchestras on Newman’s “Louisiana 1927.”

Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can” is not the only one of Toussaint’s songs to appear on Harry Connick Jr.’s Oh My NOLA, which begins with Toussaint’s “Working in the Coal Mine,” which has a homey and soulful sound. Connick’s singing is relaxed, and (in character) beleaguered, and the song has brassy horns. Connick sings one of his Uncle’s favorite songs—“Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?”—and it is entertaining, old-fashion music, but not stilted or stuffy, and it’s interesting to hear a man sing the song and Connick sings it jauntily, without being coy, tender, or sensual: it’s just a song, not a confession. Chris Kenner’s song “Something You Got” has an insinuating lyric, with a great beat and rhythm, and Harry Connick’s singing of the lyrics is confident and masculine, and not rushed or shiny and showy. The ballad about the threat of gossip to a relationship, “Let Them Talk,” is nearly a blues. Hank Williams’s song “Jambalaya,” a song I grew up hearing, is far from a favorite of mine, and Connick’s version, though full-hearted, does not make me like it any better. Connick’s performance of “Careless Love,” a standard, compels me to think about his technique, about the nature and expression of his talent. His diction is clear, but not formal, not forbidding. He conveys sincerity but not pathos, not sentimentality. He manages somehow to be direct and soulful. The lyrics of “Careless Love,” here by Dr. John and Martin Kaelin, are about a difficult relationship but it could be a relationship not merely with a lover but with any troublesome person or entity.

I like a song Harry Connick Jr. wrote, and performs on Oh My NOLA, about the hurricane Katrina’s terrifying effect: “All These People.” The song, about “all these people, oh, just waiting there for someone but nobody came,” is a duet with the compelling Kim Burrell. And, I like Connick’s handling of Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can,” and that the arrangement of Dave Bartholomew and Pearl King’s “Someday” is not busy—and that simplicity increases the intensity of the song. In “Oh My NOLA,” the city of New Orleans, Louisiana (LA), is seen as a feminine presence. I like what sounds like trombones and tubas here, not instruments I hear often in contemporary music. The song is a tribute to Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, and other artists and people, and also the landscapes, that are part of the city’s profile.

Harry Connick Jr.’s singing of “Elijah Rock” is memorable too; and, here, also, is “Sheik of Araby” and “Lazy Bones,” two amusing songs, and Connick’s own “We Make A Lot of Love,” which I like very much and hope other singers will record. “We Make A Lot of Love” is honest, intelligent, loving. The Oh My NOLA collection comes to a close with “Hello Dolly” and “Do Dat Thing,” and “Hello Dolly” does not have the exuberance of Streisand’s or Louis Armstrong’s versions, but Connick’s interpretation is more believable, and “Do Dat Thing” is a freewheeling, hard-blowing tribute to the city and its music-makers.

Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana, is a longtime New York resident, and his work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Changing Men, Cinetext.Philo, The City Sun, The Compulsive Reader, The Humanist, IdentityTheory.com, NatCreole.com, Offscreen, Option, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written about Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Aaron Neville, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Dianne Reeves, Ella Fitzgerald, and Eva Cassidy, among others, commentaries that have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com or d.garrett.writer@gmail.com

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