You’d be hard-pressed to find an album in 2016 that mixes two distinct styles of Christian music so bravely, if not flawlessly. Antoine Diel is not only classically trained but a big Mahalia Jackson fan to boot, and his collaboration with Sam Kuslan’s storefront church organ and New Orleans masters–style piano makes for strange bedfellows indeed: an operatic take on European Christian standards on the one hand, and full on black gospel with a strong Crescent City flavor on the other. The two styles don’t necessarily blend, but they do seem at home next to each other, largely because Diel, like his idol before him, knows the sweet spot between the two traditions. It’s no coincidence that he covers three Mahalia Jackson standards in “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” “It Don’t Cost Very Much” and “I’m Gonna Live the Life I Sing About in My Song.”
For the rest of the album the styles split right down the middle, although “Precious Lord” manages to be plenty funky without a drumbeat of any kind, and “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” reverses the equation with a surprising stateliness and a few R&B touches. The real revelation here is a version of “How Great Thou Art” that couldn’t have come from anywhere but the Crescent City, replete with jazz-funeral double-time in the second half. One of Diel’s earlier albums placed its back cover at the street corner of New Orleans and Hope, which puts it somewhere between war-torn Gentilly and St. Roch; this collab is that dream made real.
Vocalist Antoine Diel quietly, though with great expressive elegance, opens On the Corner of Hope and New Orleans with a heartfelt rendition of the moving “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” Accompanied solely by the lovely guitar of Daniel Schroeder, it is instantly apparent that Diel is a man of great talent and soul.
Born in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, and raised in Los Angeles, the New Orleans resident reveals his experience in operatic and theatrical settings while showing his full embrace of his new hometown. This comes through most strongly on his original, “Animal’s Testimony,” which begins as a gospel sermon, gets into a dirge mode before the rhythm picks up and, as the lyrics rejoice, “they were dancing in the street.” On this tune, Diel’s got the full band behind him, including such notable brassmen as trombonist Craig Klein and trumpeter Kevin Louis.
Diel truly goes back in history for “Louisiana Fairy Tale,” a tune written in 1935 by John Frederick Coots. Tom McDermott, a pianist with great appreciation and flair for playing in this light-hearted style of the era, matches well with Diel’s of-another-time vocal tones.
On tunes like Tom Waits’ “Strange Weather” and the following, tango-infused “It All Ends the Same,” Diel’s exacting, formal elocution and delivery would seem to fit more comfortably on a theater’s stage than on a bandstand. Not to say that with his skills he couldn’t do both.
For the album’s purposes, Diel fares best when he’s most relaxed. Again, this is found on an original composition, “I Hear Mama Sing (Luna’s Song).” It’s written and sung from the heart, a requirement of all good music.
The album swings out happily and really pleasantly in a duet with Diel and vocalist Arséne DeLay on “Bless You (For the Good That’s in You),” made popular by singers Mel Torme and Peggy Lee. Now that’s diggin’ into some old school.