- 05 Jun 20
The Good Doctor Gives Props To Pops On This Fine Tribute To The Genius Of Louis Armstrong
It hardly needs saying that Louis Armstrong was a towering figure in American and world music. A pivotal influence on the development of jazz, he was one of the first to move the focus from collective to individual performance, evident on his essential Hot Five recordings from the twenties and thirties. It wasn’t just his trumpet playing either, his instantly recognisable vocals helped him to become one of the first artists of colour to cross over to the white market and his screen presence lifted movies like High Society and Hello, Dolly!
If anyone was going to be able to do Satchmo justice then Dr John would always have at the very least been in the running. Coming from the same New Orleans as Armstrong, his peerless run of records in the seventies combined jazz and blues and funk and anything else you care to mention into a strong gumbo that Armstrong would surely have appreciated. Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit Of Satch - a reinterpretation as well as a tribute - was the last record Dr. John got to finish before he passed away last year and it’s now lovingly reissued on twelve inches of the black stuff.
The man known as Mac Rebennack calls on a revolving cast of musical guests - and the essential contributions of producer/arranger Sarah Morrow - to realise his cap doff, starting off with Blind Boys Of Alabama, who take ‘What A Wonderful World’ back into the chapel, calming a slightly busy arrangement. They return later on to help the country-soul tinged beauty of ‘Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams’ and you’re going to need to close your eyes for Terence Blanchard’s trumpet solo. In case you require credentials, Blanchard was in Art Blakley’s Jazz Messengers by the time he was twenty(!) years old, and is the man Spike Lee calls up when when he needs a score, picking up an Oscar nomination for BlacKkKlansman.
Blanchard also lays into a version of ‘Mack The Knife’ that has both eyes on your feet. The drummer and the rhythm guitarist are working hard too, and the recording transplants Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Weimar updating of John Gay’s dandy highwayman back to Bourbon Street. Mike Ladd’s mid-song rap doesn’t put a foot wrong either, referencing the lyric’s Berlin origins.
‘Tight Like This’ stretches back to a 1928 recording by Armstrong with his Savoy Ballroom Five – the second incarnation of his Hot Five - with the mighty Earl Hines on piano. John updates it while staying true to its Latin-esque sound by bringing in Cuban rapper/spoken-word freestyler Telmary Diaz and giving the Armstrong horn part to Arturo Sandoval to further Habana the mix.
‘I Got The World On A String’ might be best known as sung by Sinatra to a Nelson Riddle arrangement, although everyone from Bing Crosby to Rod Stewart has had a go at it since Cab Calloway could be heard giving it out in The Cotton Club of the 1930s. Bonnie Raitt’s sexy, smokey tones compliment the Doctor perfectly here, above the gentle swing of the band.
‘Gut Bucket Blues’ is an Armstrong original composition, first put down at the first Hot Five recording session in Chicago in 1925, when Armstrong was a mere lad of 24. After recording two instrumentals at the session – ‘My Heart’ and ‘Yes! I’m In The Barrel' - Okeh records president E.A Fearn called for a blues. Armstrong wasn’t sure, thinking all blues sounded too similar but once Johnny St. Cyr kicked things off with a bit of banjo, we got to hear Armstrong’s voice on record for pretty much the first time as he gees on each member of the band in turn. Nicholas Payton plays the trumpet on the update and, if he was good enough for Elvin Jones, Zigaboo Modeliste, and Allen Toussaint, then he’s good enough for you.
‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’ is a centuries old howl of pain that Armstrong recorded in 1958 with the Sy Oliver Choir for his Louis And The Good Book album, and there’s a world of hurt in the way he sounds out the melody, first with his horn and then his voice. Anthony Hamilton won a Grammy singing with Al Green, featured on the Django Unchained soundtrack, and sang backing vocals on one the greatest albums of all time – D’Angelo’s Voodoo - as well as making some fine records with his own name on them, and his vocal here is near perfect, straying out of the lower register when necessary and conveying just the right amount of forlorn feeling.
The Doctor’s vocals, aided by The McCrary Sisters, are sweet as a Sunday morning on ‘That’s My Home’ and the trumpet lines from Wendell Brunious are as welcome as another hour in bed. The McCrary Sisters also carry ‘Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen’ although they’re ably supported by some beautiful piano playing from the man himself.
‘Dippermouth Blues’ – recorded by King Oliver’s Jazz Band in 1923 with Armstrong on cornet – may or may not have been written by Armstrong himself given the fact that ‘Dippermouth’ was one of his nicknames. Dr John updates it with some lyrics – “Snaggletooth wham-bam!” and some scat singing and a blast from James ’12’ Andrews that would have even the legless joining the second line.
Shemekia Copeland takes the place of Billie Holiday to John’s Armstrong on ‘Sweet Hunk O’ Trash’. It may not match the charm of the original but it has a down and dirty spirit all of its own. ‘Memories Of You’ brings back Arturo Sandoval for a silky nightclub swing at a tune Armstrong recorded in 1930 – with the first known use of the vibraphone on a popular recording, so there you go. Monk and Mingus both took a shot at this in their time, and John's version can take its place beside them.
The brilliant Dirty Dozen Brass Band save the over-familiarity of ‘When You’re Smiling (The Whole World Smiles With You)’ with an arrangement that would raise a grin on the mug of even the most miserable of bastards, and the Doctor's vocal skips gleefully across the top of this most appropriate of closers.
These songs will always be synonymous with Louis Armstrong but Dr. John brings something to them that no one else could – Dr. John. It’s a welcome reminder of Satchmo’s genius and a fitting tribute from one New Orleans giant to another. Desitively Bonnaroo.