Doctors, Professors, Kings and Queens: The Big Ol' Box of New Orleans
America's most musical city is a daunting topic for any collection, even a four-disc box set. From Dixieland, jazz, blues, rock 'n' roll, R&B, and funk to the Francophone world of swamp pop, Cajun, and zydeco to the folk musics of vodou and the Mardi Gras Indians, the Crescent City has a number of musical histories to tell. Fortunately, it also supplies a homegrown metaphor: gumbo. That savory stew of disparate ingredients is mirrored in the magpie assortment of music -- old, new, Cajun, and very blue -- on parade here. Any New Orleans cook will tell you that the secret to gumbo is the roux, the concentrated base of the dish, and compiler Chuck Taggart (who supplies enlightening track-by-track notes) gets that base just right. You couldn't have a New Orleans box without Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Professor Longhair, Ernie K. Doe, Fats Domino, and the Meters -- and they're all here. Of course, they're mostly limited to a track or two a piece, but that's the nature of a set like this. Spice-wise, this set swings toward the jazzy sounds of black New Orleans, leaving more rural Cajun numbers as palate-cleansers, and this, too, is as it should be, popular conceptions of the Big Easy to the contrary. The Big Ol' Box endeavors to be something of a not-for-tourists guide -- it hits the expected sites but also the names that fill the weekly listings of OffBeat, the local music bible. John Cleary, Galactic, the Iguanas, Anders Osborne, even Fredy Omar, the city's resident salsa bandleader, have their moment. The contrast between classic material from Alan Toussaint and Ernie K-Doe and some lighter-weight contemporary interpretations is more often than not felicitous, with only a few clunkers coming from the current generation (James Booker's "Classified" is NOLA blues at its most derivative). But there's so much love in the collection -- a hilarious list of "why we love New Orleans" is a highlight of the liner notes -- that it's easy to overlook even these. The best test of a collection like this is to just put it on, one disc after another -- and if it isn't the soundtrack to one helluva party, then grits ain't groceries and you've never been to New Orleans.