Tuesday, September 02, 2014

New Dr. John CD Is Good But Little Spirit of Satchmo

Purported to be a tribute to Louis Armstrong, Dr. John’s new Concord Records album even reflects that in its title, She-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit Of Satch. Listening to this I find it more satisfying as listening to this as simply a Dr. John album with songs somehow associated with Louis Armstrong. With arrangements primarily by his trombonist Sarah Morrow and the good Doctor, the music is more in the spirit of Dr. John and for a tribute to a gentleman whose legacy might be summed up by a title he recorded, Swing That Music, there is little swing but plenty of funk. This is despite the presence of such marvelous guests as Nicholas Payton, Terence Blanchard, Wendell Brunious, James Andrews, the Five Blind Boys, Ledisi, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Bonnie Raitt, Shemekia Copeland, the Dirty Dozen and Arturo Sandoval along with Reginald Veal, Herlin Riley, Pancho Sanchez and Ed Petersen among those playing on these sessions.

One does notice the omission of anyone with direct ties to Louis Armstrong here such as Jewel Brown who was a member of Armstrong’s touring band for years, and Catherine Russell, daughter of Luis Russell, the leader Louis Armstrong’s big band for years before in disbanded. Russell herself has revived a number of Armstrong songs on her wonderful recent recordings (and most definitely in the spirit of Satchmo) and would have made as wonderful a participant as anybody here.

Looking at the material, there are only a few numbers that have a strong connection with Armstrong and core to his performance while several core songs of Armstrong’s music including When It’s Sleepy Time Down South (Armstrong’s theme song) and When the Saints Go Marching In (Armstrong’s recording with his big band popularized a number that has become overplayed perhaps).  That’s My Home is a musical cousin to Sleepy Time, and one can understand Dr. John being uncomfortable with the its lyrics. While Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child was performed by Armstrong, and is a nice vehicle for singer Anthony Hamilton, there is nothing about this song or performance that makes one think of Armstrong. The same can be said with Sweet Hunk O’Trash that Armstrong performed with Billie Holiday in a movie and seems to be chosen as a vehicle for a duet with Copeland. Armstrong played on the original Trouble in Mind, and one wonders that a more inspired vehicle for Copeland might have been this with simply Dr. John and just Nicholas Payton on trumpet.

There is a lovely rendition of What a Wonderful World (although hardly a core part of Armstrong’s repertoire when he was alive) with the Five Blind Boys to open this album and there is a fresh, funk and hip-hop rendition of “Mack the Knife” with Mike Ladd adding a rap. Also Tight Like That, with Arturo Sandoval’s trumpet is totally reworked into a Latin number. The duet with Bonnie Raitt on I’ve Got the World on a String is nice but the only thing Dr. John’s “Gut Bucket Blues” has in common with Armstrong’s Hot Five recording is its title. The performance bears little resemblance to Armstrong’s original although Payton is brilliant here and it is a nice blues vocal and performance. Despite some bombast in the arrangement, Dippermouth Blues is also far removed from King Oliver’s original or the various renditions (including under the name Sugarfoot Stomp, and becomes rollicking New Orleans funk with James Andrews (Trombone Shorty’s brother) playing  hot trumpet while Doctor John sings some scat phrases he wrote (including the title of this album), That’s My Home is one of the songs here that most evokes Armstrong’s music as does Memories of You with some outstanding playing from trumpeter Sandoval.

The closing When You’re Smiling, with the Dirty Dozen, has a lively Afro-Cuban groove and a solid vocal from the good Doctor. And there is certainly nothing to fault Dr. John’s performances here. The problem is the subtitle of the album, The Spirit of Satch. If you simply called this Ske-Dat-De-Dat, I suspect few would make a connection with Louis Armstrong from listening to it other than observe several songs were associated with Armstrong. At the same time, viewed as a Dr. John album it certainly will appeal to his many fans and on that basis I have no problem recommending this.

 I received a review copy from Concord Records. Here is the song Gutbucket Blues as performed by Dr. John followed by the Armstrong Hot Five recording, Gutbucket Blues.

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