New Orleans is considered the birthplace of jazz. In the late 1800s, the city was a melting pot of different cultures, including African, European, and Caribbean. This cultural diversity had a profound impact on the music of the city. The new sounds of Dixieland and ragtime became the foundation in the evolution of jazz. Artists such as Buddy Bolden, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton became the leaders of this new music.
It was the pianists who later became the heart and soul of the New Orleans style of music, combining many different aspects and genres into an increasingly diverse jazz gumbo soup. Pianists like Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint, Professor Longhair and James Booker continued that evolution. However, no musician epitomizes all the styles present in the history of New Orleans music like Dr. John (Mac Rebennack). Dr. John: The Montreux Years is a remarkable testament to both the breadth and talent he was able to convey, especially in a live setting. The 14 tracks on the album (recorded between 1986 and 2012) are a cumulative masterclass that showcases his diversity of style, all the while staying true to the essence of the New Orleans DNA evident in his playing and singing.
The album starts with four tracks from 1986 with Dr. John performing solo. First up is the instrumental boogie-woogie/barrelhouse piano of "Professor Longhair Boogie." This is followed by the bluesy piano and vocals of "You Ain't Such A Much" and the Fats Domino hit "Sick and Tired," also done as a boogie-woogie. The traditional "Stack-A-Lee" is also done in barrelhouse style and closes the solo mini-set.
The remaining songs are a potpourri of styles and ensembles backing the good doctor. There are old pop standards like "Accentuate the Positive" and "Love for Sale" The latter arrangement might be the most interesting one on the record. It starts with a bluesy bass line and wailing tenor sax before Dr. John comes in to somehow fit the melody over that backdrop. Toward the end of the song, he and guest Jon Cleary, lay down a talking, singing lyric over the bass vamping underneath. It is a great example of Dr. John's ability to adapt his style to any setting. As he remarks to the crowd after the song ends, "That ain't the way Cole Porter composed it, but it's damn sure the way we do it."
"Makin' Whoopie" and "Let The Good Times Roll" are from 1995 and are given stellar big-band arrangements. "Right Place, Wrong Time" from 2004 is here with a similar arrangement to the original. "Rain" is the ballad of the set. Lovingly played and sung, the song is reminiscent of Leon Russell's "A Song For You."
"Big Chief" from 2012 (see the YouTube video below) features Trombone Shorty and is the quintessential New Orleans stomp. Once again paying homage to the song's composer Professor Longhair, Dr. John showcases his piano skills in this joyful performance.
It is a solo rendition of the medley "In a Sentimental Mood/Mississippi Mud/Happy Hard Times" from 2011 that may be the most impressive track on the album. In its seven and a half minutes, he explores the history of New Orleans-style piano. The playing is simple but deep. It is subtle but expressive. It is not flashy but is profound.
A solo performance from 1986, Lead Belly's folk standard "Goodnight Irene," closes the album as it began. Dedicated to James Booker, it is a rollicking boogie-woogie stomper.
Lovingly curated by the Montreux Jazz Festival and overseen by founder Claude Nobs' partner, Thierry Amsallem, this is the tenth installment of The Montreux Years series. The whole album is a wonderful live compilation that shows the many facets of musicianship that made Dr. John the iconic figure he remains.
Professor Longhair Boogie; You Ain’t Such a Much; Sick and Tired; Stack-a-Lee; Accentuate the Positive; Right Place, Wrong Time; Rain; Going Back to New Orleans; Makin’ Whoopee; Big Chief; In a Sentimental Mood/Mississippi Mud/Happy Hard Times (Medley); Love for Sale; Let the Good Times Roll; Good Night Irene.
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