Dr. John pays tribute to Louis Armstrong Review - "The Spirit of Satch" concert

On Friday night, November 18th, the inimitable “Dr. John” (Malcolm “Mac” John Rebenack), 75, and his band, “The Nite Riders”, with Musical Director/trombonist Sarah Morrow, Special Guest trumpet Nicholas Payton and vocalist Telmary, joined with a phalanx of virtuoso Chicago horn players at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan for a sold-out one-night-only wailing hot show as part of the Symphony Center Presents Jazz series. The musicians performed 16 numbers in 2 hours, the majority taken from Dr. John’s 2014 release “Ske Dat De Dat”, in a program titled “The Spirit of Satch”, a tribute to Louis Armstrong. Telmary, widely known as the most authentic rapper in Cuba, added pizazz as she drew from a variety of vocal styles and Payton is simply an extraordinary trumpet player.

Dr. John; photo by Bruce Weber

While Sarah Morrow is undeniably a  strong and confident trombone player, and co-produced and co-arranged the critically lauded “Ske Dat De Dat” album, she was visually distracting on stage, possibly due to the uneven acoustics in the hall. Even though the back and sides of the stage were draped in black bunting, the amping appeared too loud with noticeable reverb for much of the concert. In an apparent effort at  "musical direction" she repeatedly spoke to and appeared to instruct the Chicago contingent. All of these fine musicians- trumpet and saxophone artists- took solo positions and performed with style throughout the show.

Dr. John; photo by Todd Rosenberg

The concert opened with “What A Wonderful World”, and closed with “Such a Night”  (“If I don’t do it, somebody else will”).  Of course, they performed “Ske Dat De Dat”- a wickedly clever, fun and vivacious skat-singing cut. Among the memorable re-covered Armstrong songs from the album included “Mack The Knife”, “Sometimes I Feel like A Motherless Child”, “When You’re Smiling”, “That’s My Home”, “Memories of You”, “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams”, “Gutbucket Blues”, and “When the Saints go Marching In”.  Other great renditions of Armstrong standards, sung and recorded by Dr. John before the “Ske Dat De Dat “ album included “Blues in the Night” and  “Muskrat Ramble”.

Nicholas Payton; photo by Todd Rosenberg

While the arrangements are very new and different from those made famous by “Satchmo”- they are funkier, rock or hip-hop-infused, and even stepped up with contemporary zydeco sound- they remain true to the heart of Louis Armstrong as well as to the heart of Doctor John. And that is exactly the point: the artist told the audience Friday night what has been oft repeated since the album’s inception. Armstrong came to Dr. John in a dream and told him “”Do my music but do it your way”. In the case of “Gut Bucket Blues”, that way came with a rousting Payton solo. “Mack the Knife” began with a rip roaring funky Dixieland jazz intro, and distinctive phrasing. “That’s My Home” had Dr. John saturating the lyrics with intensity and swagger. “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” came closest to Armstrong’s rendition, but with that famous Dr. John soulfully wrenching vocal overlay. “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” was given a smooth and masterful deep gospel/funk sound.

Dr. John at the keyboards; photo by Todd Rosenberg

 Age has done nothing to diminish the musical icon’s vocal range or keyboard expertise. The voice sounds like Southern comfort laced with gravel and growls.  Nimble and strong at the piano and electric keyboard, this was his show all the way. Historically, his work has combined blues, pop, jazz, boogie-woogie, Latin and African dance sounds and psychedelic rock , to enumerate broad categories. This concert  contained rap, skat, cha-cha, salsa  and even samba elements. Throughout his 50+ year career he’s been an incomparable session musician – the list of his colleagues and contributions to the recordings of other artists, to television and film scores, and his charity appearances is beyond the scope of this review- but he has never forgotten his New Orleans roots, and has long recorded his takes on songs Louis Armstrong made famous. After living in LA and New York, he returned to New Orleans in 2009.

Telmary; photo by Todd Rosenberg

As the work on “Ske Dat De Dat” shows, and this concert exemplified, Dr. John has the ability not only to reprise the work of others, and to achieve career longevity, but to combine with other talent throughout his life to pay tribute, add to and shape well-known songs in his own fresh way, making them new and his own. Louis Armstrong’s musical innovations, fun-loving and playful interpretations and sense of joy infused his music in a similar fashion to the way that Dr. John’s personality and virtuosity have made him legendary.

Telmary, Dr. John, Nicholas Payton and other musical guests at "The Spirit of Satch"; photo by Todd Rosenberg

 

It’s typical that this ultra-versatile and generous musician surrounded himself on stage with  a host of local Chicago horn heavyweights. Super trumpet players Victor Garcia and Mark Olen and saxophone stars Eric Schneider on alto sax,  Steve Eisen on tenor sax and Jerry DiMuzio on baritone sax played with the members of Dr. John's own band, heavy-hitting but light fingered drummer Herlin Riley, whose percussion solos raised the roof at Symphony Center, as well as  Jamie Kime on guitar and Roland Guerin on bass, each of whom took a strong lead at different times throughout the evening. The show was a lot of fun and an extravaganza of inventive musical combination- one legend paid homage to another, and cemented both New Orleans’ greats in our hearts.

Nicholas Payton; photo courtesy of Paytone Records

For other great concerts in the 86th season Symphony Center Presents Jazz Series, go to the CSO website

 

 

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