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The Christmas List

A music writer’s gift picks

We strive in this season, as in Decembers past, to give readers a cutting-edge insight on gifts worth giving.

First place on the 2011 gift advisory goes to What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong (Pantheon) by Ricky Riccardi, a well-wrought biography and flowing read. Journalist and jazz pianist Riccardi charts Armstrong – from 1945 until his death in ’71 – as he became a global celebrity via concert tours, recordings, film and television appearances. His instrumental style had softened from the sharp attack and sumptuous riffs of the ’20s Hot 5 records. “Critics who routinely lashed out at Armstrong during his later years may have had the loudest voices, but in no way were they the majority ... With a bruised lip and an almost inhuman, punishing schedule, Armstrong worked harder than ever.”

He scored huge hits with “Hello Dolly” and “Mack the Knife,” and issued such superb albums as Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy and Satch Plays Fats. “What A Wonderful World,” released 17 years after his death, is an enduring hit. Yet some critics slammed him as an Uncle Tom for stage antics out of vaudeville.

 Riccardi defends him with admirable dispassion. He also adds a nuanced view of Joe Glaser, the manager who oversaw his finances. “Armstrong was always happy as long as he had enough money to do whatever he needed, and Glaser saw to that. But critics of Glaser couldn’t help feeling that he spent the better part of those decades ripping off his client.” When Glaser died, Armstrong received all his shares in a music-publishing venture and trust funds, such that he told Buddy Hackett that he had $2 million – a lot back then.

Angola to Zydeco: Louisiana Lives (University Press of Mississippi) by E. Reese Fuller covers more than musicians in this carousel of profiles.

Fuller, now a high school teacher, wrote these pieces as a staffer for The Independent in Lafayette. The profiles of novelist James Lee Burke and painter Elemore Morgan Jr. are timeless. So is Fuller at the home of Stanley Dural Jr. aka Buckwheat Zydeco, on his acres near Carencro:

You sit outside with him, and he sits on the tailgate of his beloved pickup. He plays the accordion, but he doesn’t sing. He doesn’t even play. He doesn’t even play entire songs. He just moves effortlessly from one melody into another. The dogs are howling, and you can hear the geese squawking on the other side of the stable. ... And you might as well be invisible because he doesn’t see you. He’s far too busy paying attention to his soul and what it tells his fingers to do.

 James Nolan’s new novel, Higher Ground (ULL Press), follows a quirky, brave woman named Nicole Naquin, caught in the pits of loss after Hurricane Katrina. Nolan melds rhythms of the city in a plotline on the hard slog of people grittily rebuilding homes and lives against the odds. He writes about French Quarter bohemia as if he had invented it. Nicole is indomitable. Here she is in the eyes of her old flame, Kelly:

During the next 20 minutes, it was 1975 and they were both teenagers again. There he was on the dance floor in his shiny wide-collared shirt cranking his elbows to Linda Ronstadt’s “Heat Wave,” Nicole with her hair pouffed up into a perfumed nimbus, shaky as a newborn colt in strappy platform shoes. ... How, in the meantime, had he managed to get so old?

Kelly, we all wonder that. Nolan performs an elaborate makeover of Nicole as a post-Katrina “everywoman.”

The polling data we rely upon in making CD recommendations has a plus or minus ratio of 3.5 percent. No one supported Lil’ Wayne this year, possibly because of his jail stint. But at the top in a statistical dead heat we find City of a Million Dreams (BCD-527) by Tommy Sancton, Lars Edegran and the New Orleans Legacy Band, and A New Orleans Tribute to Mahalia Jackson: Cynthia Girtley with guest artist Dr. Michael White (CG 0357).

City of a Million Dreams is a waterfront coverage of New Orleans Style. The title cut, a composition by swinging reedman of yesteryear Raymond Burke, gives Sancton room to roam. Other standards include “High Society,” “Make Me A Pallet on the Floor” and a certain rarity these days in the Gershwin Brothers’ “Strike Up the Band.” All to the good. However, the standout song on this CD is a sweet little neo-tango, “Un Hombre Fiel,” composed by Julian Sancton, son of the clarinetist (and an editor at Bloomberg Business Week), and a sidekick, J.C. Agudelo. This is a song on which to build an album.

On the Mahalia Jackson album, Dr. Michael White has found a diamond talent in Cynthia Girtley, who recently returned to New Orleans after many years in Washington, D.C. where she served as musical director for several churches and the Virginia Metropolitan Opera, and sang in National Cathedral and at the Kennedy Center. Girtley is a majestic singer, as adept in gospel and spirituals as she is rolling out the blues by Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Her renditions of the Mahalia songbook cover “I’ll Fly Away” and “What A Friend We Have in Jesus,” among others, have an operatic quality, serene and soaring. At an October concert at Xavier University celebrating Jackson, she performed with White and his band and all but stole the show.

A New Orleans Tribute to Mahalia Jackson is one to play throughout this season and beyond, thus to uplift Nicole Naquin from James Nolan’s novel, and the rest of us, with optimism challenged by the madness of life in these latitudes.
 

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