Sunday, April 10, 2011

James Booker's Unpredictable Keyboard Magic

The late James Carroll Booker III was one of the most unique and brilliant of the New Orleans pianists, recording on Imperial as a young teenager, later recording an organ instrumental, Gonzo, named after a character in a movie about drugs that became a minor hit, and doing hundreds of recording sessions including New Orleans R&B dates, and with artists as diverse as Ringo Starr, the Doobie Brothers and Freddie King.

Plagued by personal demons, perhaps arising from a lifelong battle with drugs and alcohol (which he attributed to a prescription he was given after being hit by ambulance in his youth), his behavior was often erratic and his music could be extremely extroverted or painfully withdrawn inward. A child prodigy, he played Chopin as a child, and was drawn to the music of Errol Garner and Liberace. As indicated he played on countless sessions, although made few recordings under his own name. Like his moods, his playing could be inconsistent. While it was usually marvelous, he could ramble on, noodling. The various nicknames he had, Little Booker, Gonzo, Junco Partner, the Bronze Chopin or the Black Liberace, may give you an idea of what to expect.

Rounder has added, to the few albums issued under his name, two new albums drawn from over 60 hours of live recordings of Booker playing the upright piano at New Orleans’ Maple Leaf Bar, perhaps his steadiest gig. These provide a fascinating glimpse at one of major piano stylists of recent pop music idioms. Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah and Spiders on the Keys present slightly different perspectives on Booker’s art.

Resurrection is comprised primarily of medleys of vocals along with his pounding boogie accompaniment while Spiders is an instrumental album. There is some overlap in the material. Tico Tico and Papa Was a Rascal can be heard on both, although in different forms. The latter tune is pure Booker, as he reworks the melody of St. Louis Blues. The vocal version contains outrageous lyrics including a warning to watch out for the CIA. Booker’s singing is also outrageous, suggestive somewhat of Professor Longhair, and may be an acquired taste.

His song medleys often feature changes in tempo and mood. Many of the songs on Resurrection have some connection with New Orleans R&B, such as All By Myself, Lawdy Miss Clawdy and Junco Partner. His use of cross rhythms is reminiscent of Professor Longhair, although his piano playing is more ornate. Booker’s originality will be evident from listening to these. Furthermore, he could play songs very differently at different times. The version of Junco Partner, is quite different from a previous recording of his I had heard. And then he could follow that with Chopin.

His versatility, and command was uncanny, leading to the admiration of many including Harry Connick, Jr.. Spiders is all piano and, includes interpretations of pop tunes, including Eleanor Rigby and the unlikely choice of A Taste of Honey. Particularly nice is Gonzo’s Blue Dream, which suggests Professor Longhair’s Tipitina. His solos have some disassembly of the melodies, but his style primarily is one of embellishing the melody. In any event, these two CDs make for fascinating listening, and both have been frequent visitors to my compact disc player.

Its been some time since James Booker left this plane of existence. The review appeared in slightly different form in the December 1993 Jazz & Blues Report (issue 187) and these recordings are still available.

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