New Orleans native John “Papa” Gros has been celebrating NOLA culture for three decades now, yet Central City is only his third album but one that’s bound to gain him more recognition outside of the Crescent City. This is a feel-good party album performed with some 19 musicians/singers. Of course, it’s packed with vibrant horn parts and second-line rhythms. Gros also recruits NOLA royalty consisting of renowned bassist George Porter Jr. (Meters) (seven tracks), drummer Herlin Riley (Wynton Marsalis) (nine tracks) and Ivan Neville (Dumpstafunk) for vocal harmonies on two. Gros is serious, as he says, “Sharing New Orleans with the world is my calling. That’s what I have been doing, and that’s what I’ll do with the rest of my life.”
Packed with a cast of keepers of the NOLA flame, other contributors are banjoist Don Vappie, guitarist Brian Stoltz (Neville Brothers), trumpeter Mark Braud (Harry Connick Jr.), trombonist Mark Mullins (Bonerama), clarinetist Tim Laughlin (Meters). It’s a meshing of New Orleans jazz and early rock n’ roll with “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” an original and “Personality,” associated with Lloyd Price and Dr. John. In addition, the band interprets the late John Prine’s “Please Don’t Bury Me” and Naomi Neville’s “It’s Raining,” a favorite of Allen Toussaint. Gros mixes these with five originals with a couple from other writers. One of the prime examples of the marriage between jazz and R&B is “Gone So Long” where the Dixieland sounds of banjo and clarinet convey the distinctive sound of the city.
”Central City is a departure from my other records in that it’s a return to my roots,” says Gros, who gained recognition as a funk organist in his former group, Papa Grows Funk. Here, although credited with both piano and organ, he mostly plays the former.
Between 2000 and 2013, Gros began his transition into the spotlight by that band which released six critically acclaimed studio albums, including Needle in the Groove, which was co-produced by Toussaint. The group’s weekly gigs at the world-famous Maple Leaf became a staple for both locals and tourists alike, eventually leading to Gros touring in far off countries like Japan and Brazil. After Papa Grows Funk dissolved, Gros briefly returned to sideman work, playing organ for a series of all-star tributes to Dr. John and the Neville Brothers. The 2014 Dr. John tribute, The Music Mojo of Dr. John, was later released as a live album that featured Gros playing with Bruce Springsteen, Mavis Staples, Jason Isbell, and John Fogerty. More importantly for Gros, those tribute concerts allowed him to play alongside his two biggest influences: The Doctor and Art Neville, both of whom passed in 2019.
Gros’ previous two solo albums were 2004’s Day’s End and 2016’s River’s On Fire, both essentially funk fests and far less traditional than this effort. Gros’ album comes at a time when we could all use an emotional lift. “I’m walking in the same path [as Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, and Art Neville,]” explains Gros. “I’ve been following them my whole life. Now, they’re no longer in front of me. They’ve gotten off the path but the path is still very clear.” The tradition of NOLA piano greats lives on through John “Papa” Gros.