Dr. John: Ske-Dat-De-Dat – page 3

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The Graham Album Review #1785

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Dr. John: Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch
by George Graham

(Proper Records 35187 – As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/20/2014)

New Orleans has long been one of the great musical melting pots. It gave rise to jazz through its unique ethnic and cultural makeup. And over the years, numerous styles styles have emerged in rock, pop and soul from the Crescent City. New Orleans has also had a series of particularly influential musicians who come to symbolize different facets of the city’s music, from the pioneers of jazz and Dixieland, to the New Orleans piano mavens like Professor Longhair to the soul artists like the Neville Borthers and Allen Toussaint. And in recent years, younger musicians are emerging who draw on the city’s long traditions, such as the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the Rebirth Brass Band.

This week, we have a new recording by one New Orleans icon paying tribute to another. It’s the latest release by Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, a set of what could be called reinventions of tunes made famous by one of jazz’s most influential figures, Louis Armstrong. The CD is called Ske-Dat-De-Dat, The Spirit of Satch.

Seventy three-year-old Dr. John has had a storied career, going back to the late 1950 when he was hired as a studio musician as a teen. A native New Orleanian, his father ran a record store, so young Mac was exposed to the music at an early age. He started out on guitar, but when he was injured in his left ring finger by gunfire, he turned to piano. He fell into drug use, and moved to Los Angeles in part to try to get away from that scene. It was in Los Angeles that his Dr. John character began to evolve, culminating in his hit album Gris-Gris in 1968, in which his mixture of New Orleans funk, psychedelia and supposed voodoo influence fit in with the tenor of the times. Over the years, Dr. John has won six Grammy Awards for his music, including one for his last album Locked Down from 2013, and his output has been remarkably diverse. He has released over 30 albums under his own name, and he has been a storied sideman, adding his New Orleans piano to artists including James Taylor, Carly Simon and the Rolling Stones.

According to Dr. John, the idea for this album came to him in a dream. A young Mac Rebennack met Louis Armstrong and for a while, they shared a manager. Dr. John said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that in the dream, Armstrong told him to do his music in Dr. John’s own way. In 2010, Dr. John met trombonist and arranger Sarah Morrow, when they were working together on the soundtrack for the film “Napoleonic.” She became one of Dr. John’s principal collaborators on the new album, writing many of the arrangements, including most of the horn treatments.

With trumpet icon Armstrong being the subject of the tribute, trumpet is a fairly prominent part of this record. Most of the time, the trumpet soloist is Nicholas Payton, another New Orleans native, though Cuban-born jazz great Arturo Sandoval also appears. There are quite a few notable guests, including Bonnie Raitt, the Blind Boys of Alabama, blues singer Shemekia Copeland, Ivan Neville of the Neville Brothers, the members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and a few other guest vocalists who are not as well-known, but quite appropriate for the material – in the way the songs are done on the CD.

Those familiar with the way Louis Armstrong did these songs are likely to be surprised by some of the arrangements. There’s definitely a New Orleans undercurrent, but Dr. John takes a rather more contemporary direction on these songs, to the point that one has a kind of rap segment.

But opening this generous 13- track CD is the song It’s a Wonderful World with which Armstrong had an unlikely hit in the late 1960s. The Blind Boys of Alabama appear and give it the sound of a kind of spiritual. The result is excellent. <<>>

Many of Armstrong’s latter hit songs were not original compositions. Satch often borrowed songs from completely different genres and added his own touch. So it was with the Kurt Weill song Mack the Knife. Dr. John and company take it even further afield from its German cabaret origins. This is one of the arrangements created by Sarah Morrow. <<>> This is also the track that features a rap section, performed by Mike Ladd. <<>>

Taking a jazzier direction is a I’ve Got the World on a String, the track that features a guest appearance by Bonnie Raitt. The performance has a nice relaxed feel that emanates the kind of vibe that seems as if everyone was having a good time. <<>>

One of the early Armstrong tunes, an original by Satch himself, Gut Bucket Blues is an interesting juxtaposition of a soul and blues backing with the strong jazzy trumpet work of Nicholas Payton. <<>>

Taking yet a different direction the traditional song Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, which is given an almost smooth jazz sound, with the vocal by Anthony Hamilton. It’s another of Sarah Morrow’s arrangements, and while not the most interesting track on the album, it is well done. <<>>

Perhaps the most unexpected song treatment on the record is Tight Like This which is done as a Spanglish rap with vocals by one Telmary. Cuban jazz trumpet player Arturo Sandoval is the guest instrumental soloist. It certainly does not sound like Louis Armstrong, but it makes for intriguing listening. <<>>

Also being given a decidedly Gospel treatment is a song that is a natural for this style, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. The lead vocalist is New Orleans pop singer Ledisi who is joined by the McCreary Sisters who provide the chorus. <<>>

If there is a tune that features the classic Dr. John New Orleans sound it’s another early Armstrong tune, Dippermouth Blues by jazz pioneer King Oliver. Dr. John is in fine form, and the trumpet soloist on the track is James Andrews. <<>>

The CD ends with a fun treatment of an old song, When You’re Smiling, which features the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, giving it a blend of the New Orleans rhythm and the second-line style horns. <<>>

Mac “Dr, John” Rebennack has had a lengthy and illustrious career in music, in everything from backing up early early R&B songs though the psychedelic movement as Dr. John the Night Tripper, to a kind of elder statesman of New Orleans music. On his own albums in recent years, he as done everything from singing Tin Pan Alley Standards and paying tribute to songwriter Johnny Mercer, to doing protest songs in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, to harder edged blues-funk. Though he has long lived away from New Orleans, he is at his best when he celebrates that city’s musical heritage, as he did on his excellent 1992 release Goin’ Back to New Orleans. On his new album Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch, he again pays tribute to the Crescent City through one of its greatest musical exports, Louis Armstrong, in imaginative reworkings of some of the tunes that Armstrong made famous in very different styles. He draws on a rather large cast of characters on the various tracks, with every piece given a different stylistic or sonic direction. Obviously some of it works better than others, but every track has merit and some are brilliant.

Our grade for sound quality is about an A-minus. There’s a lot going on with the record, and it’s generally handled well in the mix. There are some occasional attempts to dirty up the sound, but most of it is clean, and the volume compression used to artificially jack up the loudness, is not too bad by today’s dumbed-down audio standards.

Dr. John has been making records for almost sixty years, and Ske-Dat-De-Dat, The Spirit of Satch shows that he’s still in top form. I think it ranks among the best of his career.

This is George Graham.

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This page last updated August 24, 2014