Dr. John is a larger than life character who seems to embody the restless energy of his new Orleans birthplace, embracing the disparate musical styles of the Crescent City’s creative cauldron, over a career that spans back to the 50s. Growing up in the 3rd Ward, his latest album is a celebration of that district’s most famous Son, as Ske-Dat-De-Dat The Spirit Of Satch pays homage to the music and effervescent personality of Louis Armstrong. Featuring a number of special guests, some plucked from the city as well as some of America’s finest musical talent, including Boonnie Raitt, The Blind Boys Of Alabama, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Terence Blanchard and Shamekia Copeland, the album updates Louis’ musical style, while trying to remaining true to the emotional essence of what made the man such an innovator in the first place. The result is a vibrant record packed full of complex arrangements, breathtaking playing and as downright funky as it gets.
Dr. John has said of Armstrong, “He’s the most famous guy that ever came out of my neighbourhood. He became a legend all over, for his trumpet playing and everything else and he was the United States ambassador to the world.” But there’s more behind this than the celebrity and geographical connection, however, as Dr. John, who only met Louis once in his lifetime, had already performed his acclaimed Props To Pops concerts in New York and The Hollywood Bowl, to considerable critical acclaim.
But the connection goes deeper and he reveals, “Louis’ spirit came to me and told me to do something, that’s how the whole thing got started.” The visitation happened in a dream and Dr. John claims, “Louis told me, ‘Take my music and do it your way.’ It was the most unexpected thing in the world to have Louis’ spirit show up like that but he gave me the concept of where to roll with it that was spiritually correct. That made me feel very open to try some different things because I felt his spirit had okayed the record.” Whatever you make of such visitations, there’s good cause to claim the spirit world would be in party mode for the playback of these sessions.
[pullquote]talent achieves things other people can’t, genius achieves things other people can’t imagine[/pullquote]It’s normally around here that I try and set some historical or biographical context. We cover such a range of artists and musical styles, and not all of those can be familiar to all comers here. But with this pairing, where do you start? Louis Armstrong really does deserve legendary status, both as one of the most important people in the history of jazz in particular, but C20th music as a whole, and also as one of America’s best loved personalities. He defied racial segregation in a way that made him unique and as a result became an American ambassador for music and culture. There’s a quote that I’ve read recently and to paraphrase, talent achieves things other people can’t, genius achieves things other people can’t imagine. By that definition, Louis Armstrong is worthy of the term.
Armstrong was 69 when he died and Dr. John is already older than that, with a career in music that spans back almost 60 years. His first steps came courtesy of his father who owned an appliance store that also sold records, although his wider family were musical too. He didn’t take to music properly until his teens, but by 16 had already been hired as a producer, also taking an A & R job and playing as a session man and scoring his first regional single success with the Diddley-esque Storm Warning in 59.
Dr. John or Mac Rebennack, as he was then otherwise known, moved to LA in 63 and piled on the session work, but it was here that almost a decade after that first brush with solo success, that his solo career and perhaps his own claim to genius took shape with the creation of Dr. John The Night Tripper. His debut album, Gris-Gris, released in 1968, still sounds astonishing, it’s heady brew of Voodoo, New Orleans’ mystique, rhythm and blues, psychedelia and his own drug fuelled vision is utterly unique to this day. In many ways, this new record is every bit as mind blowing, although it has more in common with the funky style that he hit his stride with, around Dr. John’s Gumbo and the better known In The Right Place, released around 72 and 73, when the Night Tripper pizzazz was all but put to bed.
As the word gumbo in the title of the first of those suggests, the music of New Orleans was the focus and the album comprised of classic songs from the region, with only one new original. In turn, all that feeds into New Orleans musical heritage makes for great variety and Dr. John’s output has varied stylistically since then, taking in jazz, funk, soul, rhythm and blues or boogie-woogie, although the city has remained a constant backdrop and a key ingredient of his own, mostly original musical hot pot.
Hopefully that put’s some context to Ske-Dat-De-Dat The Spirit Of Satch. Anyone expecting a gentle roll through a bunch of well loved classics best viewed through the wrong end of nostalgia’s binoculars is in for a bit of a shock. If that shock becomes disappointment, then an urgent musical MOT is to be sought forthwith. This is the proverbial Bobby Dazzler. Dr. John has pushed the boat out up the mighty Mississippi and cast around town for a crack band and some stellar collaborators. Some of the playing on this new record is off the scale and the arrangements deliver surprise after surprise, giving serious cause to periodically ditch the writing and throw some shapes. Just try it with a decent pair of headphones, but preferably not while cutting a rug!!
Given Louis’ main instrument unsurprisingly there are some great trumpet players featured, including Nicholas Payton, Terrence Blanchard, Arturo Sandoval and Wendell Brunious (actually on flugelhorn rather than trumpet). But in the horn department, extra special mention needs to be made of Sarah Morrow, a regular trombonist with Dr. John and also responsible for the bulk of the musical arrangements and also co-producer of these sessions.
There are the other headline names too. The Blind Boys Of Alabama, Bonnie Raitt, Shamekia Copeland and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band all look like a natural fit for this, which indeed they are. In truth The Blind Boys, who sing on What A Wonderful World and Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams and Bonnie with I’ve Got The World On A String are superb, but are the easier rolling end of the spectrum. Each deserves their spotlight, however, and the arrangements are just joyous and pure quality all round. The Dirty Dozen inject their trademark brio into When You’re Smiling( The Whole World Smiles With You) too, which provides an infectious, street party, fun filled finale. The surprise here is perhaps Shemekia who duets on a deeply sassy Sweet Hunk Of Trash, the grungy, funky, instrumental breakdown is something else.
It’s the album’s slightly darker material, however, which propels this release into the exceptional territory. Mack The Knife features rapper Mike Ladd, a man known for jazz and p-funk leanings and it doesn’t disappoint. With Telmary also rapping, partly in Hispanic, Tight Like This is a brilliantly off beam five minutes. There’s Gut Bucket Blues and Dippermouth Blues too, the latter is pumped up on a huge horn arrangement and give the album the Ske-Dat-De-Dat part of its title. The McCary Sisters provide sweet harmony for the lighter That’s My Home, but flex their powerful gospel style on the lament, Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen. Best of all for these ears, however, is Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child, featuring the voice of Anthony Hamilton, who has recently stepped out of the modern R & B ranks, with Freedom on the Django Unchained soundtrack. This may well have just become one of my Desert Island Discs, it’s that good.
It’s easy to get carried away with hyperbole and throw the word genius around too readily, justifying your own passion for a particular artist. I’ve applied it to both of the main protagonists here with justification. There are others involved who are on the borderline and there are many players un-heralded in this review as the credits are extensive, but each plays their part. When a member of one of New Orleans most famous musical clans, Ivan Neville, is restricted to the small print, it gives you some idea of the calibre involved. So forget the musical MOT, just get your ears around this lot, all will be right thereafter.
Review by: Simon Holland
I’ve Got The World On A String