June 6th will mark the first anniversary of Dr. John’s passing. The day prior The Last Music Company will release a commemorative vinyl edition of Ske Dat De Dat, the Doctor’s lauded tribute to Louis Armstrong, which was recorded seven years ago and ended up being his last studio recording. It was a mammoth project, involving a plethora of guests; in hindsight perhaps too many. As this writer has mentioned many times, tribute projects of this nature often suffer from the “too much” and might be better served with a “less is more” approach. However, many of these tracks are outstanding and reflect the star power gathered here as one New Orleans icon honors perhaps the most important one of all, “Satchmo.”
The idea came to Dr. John in a dream, in a quote that is perhaps well-known by now –“I’d never though I’d see Louis in a dream, that’s the last place I thought I was ever gonna see him. He said, “Do this record…your way.’ And that was like an order. And I mean, I felt that. Somewhere in the spirit gig, he’s there.” With those so-called marching orders, Dr. John thought he put forth his best effort. Co-produce by trombonist Sara Morrow, the collaborations are quite interesting, and most of them work very well as the Doctor always has a prime band behind him; certainly, drummer Herlin Riley is one of the best. They do try to contemporize many of the tunes which is to their credit, even though the results are a bit uneven.
He opens with one of Louis’s revered tunes “What a Wonderful World,” with The Blind Boys of Alabama on the vocal intro before the Doctor enters, and homeboy Nicholas Payton taking Satchmo’s trumpet spot, done like no other version, in NOLA funk. “Mack the Knife” has vocalist Mike Ladd sparring with the Doctor while Terence Blanchard adds trumpet to another in funk mode. Tempo slows for “Tight Like This” over a slow, After-Cuban groove, with Telmary on vocals and Arturo Sandoval on horn. Without the Doctor’s keys, though, the tune is missing a lot but the next, “I’ve Got the World on a String,” with Bonnie Raitt is a clear standout as Poncho Sanchez does his conga thing underneath.
”Gutbucket Blues” is a showcase for Payton. “Dippermouth Blues” is a big front-line horn tune, featuring James “12” Andrews. “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” is another strong one, due to the smooth R&B vocals of Anthony Hamilton and the radio-friendly backdrop. This begins an especially strong vocal sequence as the McCrary Sisters follow with another R&B, “That’s My Home” with Wendell Brunious on flugelhorn followed by another of those male-female duets that Dr. John does so well, this time with Ledisi on the gospel arrangement of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” The Blind Boys of Alabama and Terence Blanchard return for more soul and R&B on the splendid “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams.”
Long-time friends Shemekia Copeland and the Doctor get playful on “Sweet Hunk O’ Trash,” another killer track. Arturo Sandoval brightens “Memories of You” before the set closes gloriously with second-line beats abounding as the Dirty Dozen Brass Band takes it home with “When You’re Smiling.” It’s the perfect way to honor “Satchmo,” known for his wide smile. It will leave smiles on faces too and may even lead to some dancing.