For Christmas in New Orleans this year will be unlike any other within the memory of several generations. Furthermore, many New Orleanians are living in places like Minneapolis, Tulsa, Houston, Phoenix or Los Angeles this Christmas. They may be dreaming of a Christmas in New Orleans instead of living it, just as it’s depicted on the cover of the album.... with palm trees against a purple sky at dusk. No, wait. That’s supposed to be Bethlehem in the distance (I think), although the scene looks uncannily like Corona’s holiday TV commercial.
"New Orleans’ Own The DUKES of Dixieland" has recorded a CD that celebrates a Christmas in New Orleans of one type or another maybe of past Christmases. Or perhaps it celebrates good wishes for this Christmas as recovery continues. In any case, Christmas in New Orleans is, according to its press release, "the album that even Katrina could not sweep away!" It seems that the CD was recorded in the summer of 2005 before Hurricane Katrina flooded the city, and the tapes were sent to Los Angeles for mastering just four days before the storm.
I’m sure that all of the members of the band have struggled in the aftermath of the hurricane or that they have family members or friends who did. In fact, drummer Richard Taylor lost his house and has moved to Alabama, and the band is dispersed to cities as far apart as Seattle and Shreveport.
The problem with Christmas in New Orleans lies in the implicit cynicism of re-marketing a project with extravagant claims to tie in with the sympathy for a beleaguered city, even though initially it was intended to be a straightforward Christmas CD as only The DUKES of Dixieland could play it. For example: "The miracle album saved from destruction and born in the spirit of giving." Well, that is a tad dramatic when you consider that a regular FedEx shipment was the element saving the project from destruction. And wasn’t the album "born" as a planned recording of Christmas music?
In any case, there’s the music.
The DUKES of Dixieland has taken for the most part traditional Christmas songs and applied Dixieland swing and an irrepressible sense of fun from the very first number. "Jingle Bells" starts with what one would expect: a traditional Dixieland version of the song, complete with brief clarinet, trombone and trumpet solos. The surprises come in when The Pfister Sisters harken back to The Andrews Sisters’ version.... and when Luther Kent, he of the gravelly voice, inserts a blues-derived chorus. "I’ll Be Home for Christmas" comes across as an arrangement from decades past when big band music was heard on the radio.
Some of the fun occurs during The DUKES of Dixieland’s witty adaptations of Christmas songs like "Little Drummer Boy," revised as "Big Drummer Boy" with a New Orleans street rhythm and brass-led accents punctuating Kent’s vocals. Or "Silver Bells" alternates a gliding shuffle with an oom-pah-pah-like three-four rhythm for comical effect.
The DUKES of Dixieland’s original songs for the album incorporate a similar attitude of whimsy. However, they too contain the same sense of irony of the albums title. There’s "Christmas Time in New Orleans" with its blues-tinged reminiscence of "a Dixieland Santa Claus leading the band / To a good ole Creole piece" or "Magnolia trees at night / Sparkling bright." Or there’s "Holiday Time in New Orleans" with its call-and-response sentiment of "Down on Rampart Street, all the locals meet to see that Christmas second line parade."
Though this is the recording that stood up to Hurricane Katrina and survived, according to the press materials, The DUKES of Dixieland impart none of the sense of loss or hardship that the city has seen, as has, for instance, Dr. John’s most recent release. Rather Christmas in New Orleans retains the sense of abandon, and the unique incorporation of everyday life into the city’s music, for which they city is known. One hopes that it will retain that identity far into the future as well.