Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Mardi Gras music: jazz & blues greats; sublime and reflective Lenten song

Today is "Fat Tuesday," the final flourish of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. As the last few handfuls of beads are thrown, the parades and floats pass by, and the revelers either pass out or retire to clubs for more celebration, I thought we'd spotlight the music that continues to set the world ablaze, all year round.
Prominent in the link to our Crescent City offerings above is the work of two key musicians: Louis Armstrong and Professor Longhair. The most influential jazz musician of the 20th century, Armstrong was so charismatic and gifted that he toppled the Beatles from the top of the charts 40 years after he cut his first record. Recordings like 1923's "Hotter Than That" with his Hot Five altered the future of music. Almost 100 years later, it still sounds hip! (Ditto the music of Jelly Roll Morton and Ella Fitzgerald, whom we have singing duets with Satchmo.)
Dubbed “the Picasso of keyboard funk” and “the Bach of rock,” Professor Longhair (Henry Roeland “Roy” Byrd) was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, in 1918. Here's how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame described him when he was inducted in 1992:
As a vocalist, Professor Longhair was a classic blues shouter. As a pianist, he was a unique force of nature - or, more accurately, New Orleans. It was a city whose sense of festivity he celebrated with such anthems as “Tipitina” (now the name of the city’s most fabled music club), “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” and “Big Chief.” Longhair remained locally popular as a working musician from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, rarely venturing off his home turf. He abandoned the music business in 1964 to work odd jobs and deal cards for a living. After languishing in obscurity Professor Longhair was rediscovered and enlisted to play at the second New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1971. His comeback included tours of Europe and albums for major labels as a new generation discovered his inimitable “mambo-rumba-boogie” style. All the while he remained the patron saint of Jazzfest, closing out the final show each year until his death in 1980.
Of course the extravaganzas of Mardi Gras began as a last gasp of excess before the sacrifices and privations of Lent. Click here for some exquisite music specifically for the season by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles (Lent at Ephesus),  as well as other sacred choral music by Verdi, Monteverdi, Beethoven, Mahler, and others. You can sample the nuns' celestial harmonies in this NPR feature.
The group's Angels and Saints at Ephesus topped the Billboard classical charts, and now it's releasing its latest, Lent at Ephesus. Mother Cecilia, prioress of the abbey in rural Missouri and the group's arranger, tells NPR's Renee Montagne, "We're not fabricating anything; this is just music we're pulling from our life, our everyday life."
"We're hard workers," Mother Cecilia says. "We really follow the rules of St. Benedict very closely — his ora et labora, which is 'pray and work.'…. Mother Cecilia, 10 years prior, played French horn with the Columbus Symphony. 

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