How a Dream of Louis Armstrong Inspired Dr. John's Latest Album
Seminal jazz trumpeter and vocalist Louis "Satch" Armstrong gets revitalized in 2014 thanks to New Orleans music maestro Dr. John. It's not that Armstrong's music isn't forever popular; it's just that the good Doctor has taken it upon himself to reinvent 13 Armstrong tracks -- using funk to blues to hip-hop -- on Ske-Dat-De-Dat . . . The Spirit of Satch. If you ask Dr. John (real name Malcolm John "Mac" Rebennack) why he has chosen to record the jazz icon's music (scheduled for an August 19 release), the response is simple: "He told me to do his music; his music, my way," Dr. John explains over the phone from his New Orleans home.
Armstrong died in 1971, but this request came when Armstrong unexpectedly appeared before Dr. John in a dream. Not one to dismiss such apparitions and blessings, Dr. John recruited a host of today's hottest jazz trumpet players for the venture. Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, Arturo Sandoval, Wendell Brunious, and James Andrews lend their chops to the adventurous project. Bonnie Raitt, Shemekia Copeland, the Blind Boys of Alabama, among others, also came on board.
"All these guests, I thought they would be interesting voices on it," Dr. John says in his slow 'Nawlins drawl. "That's a lot of fun for me, you know? I had a good time doing this record."
Dr. John previously created tribute albums to Duke Ellington and Johnny Mercer, but Armstrong's catalog proved deeper and more varied.
"Most of the songs that I picked, whether they was gutbucket blues or other blues, or stuff like that, they was stuff I really loved, you know?" he says. "I was thinking about doing some stuff that maybe nobody wouldn't do. Some songs I was slamming to do."
"World on a String" is a big band send-up featuring a duet with Raitt, while "Tight Like That," features a sultry Latin theme and rap by Telmary. "What a Wonderful World" goes gospel-funk with the Blind Boys, and "Mac the Knife" becomes a hard-hitting, up-tempo funky jazz romp complete with stinging freestyle rap.
Hip and different are two words appropriate in summing up Dr. John's 50 years of music making. His career began in the late-1950s while still in his teens. A finger injury caused him to switch from guitar to piano. Moving to Los Angeles in 1963, he soon adopted the persona of Dr. John the Night Tripper and released the trippy, psychedelic voodoo funk masterpiece Gris-Gris. Though his mumbled incantations and chants might not be considered singing by most, for Dr. John, it was the first time he put vocals to his music.
"I was making that first record and Ahmet [Ertegün, Atlantic Records founder] told me, 'If Sonny & Cher can sing, and Bob Dylan can sing, you can sing,'" he recalls with a scratchy laugh. "I never thought about singing before. I wrote a lot of songs, and actually sang one song, but I never planned on doing that for a living."
The doctor's breakthrough came with 1973's "Right Place, Wrong Time." The ensuing years have been a mixture of funk, rollicking jazz, blues, R&B, soul and pop -- all with a self-determined flair.
"You know, Ahmet was mad about that first record . . . but [to me] it was okay," he says with another laugh. "All good things came my way because of it. It's worked out good."
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