Dr. John Salutes Satchmo with All-Star Concert
This first installment of pianist Dr. John’s ambitious three-weekend residency at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) was a Louis Armstrong tribute on March 31 that emphasized Satchmo’s life as an entertainer, trumpeter, vocalist and uptown street kid.
“Insides Out: A Tribute To Louis Armstrong” offered performer-dense programming characteristic of American musical theater. Both Dr. John’s funk nonet and an impressive passel of guest stars refracted and interpreted 20 or so songs associated with the legendary musician—not the Armstrong of “Potato Head Blues” or “West End Blues,” but of “What A Wonderful World” (played over an up-tempo groove with the four Blind Boys of Alabama and trumpeter Roy Hargrove) and “Mack The Knife” (a funky version featuring Hargrove, Cuban jazz-rapper Telmary Díaz, and Dr. John). Neither drummer Raymond Weber’s booming kick drum and meaty toms or David Barard’s electric bass attempted to replicate Armstrong’s sounds and textures. But Dr. John, like Armstrong, is from New Orleans’ Third Ward. His trademark soulful croak owes more than a little to Armstrong’s gravelly voice, which in the light-operatic 1920s redefined how a popular vocalist could sound.
Over the course of the evening, the band shuttled through an impressive number of feels and styles. Highlights of the fast-paced, 110-minute, intermission-free show included a Professor Longhair-inspired rhumba-boogie version of “When You’re Smiling” featuring crowd-pleasing Tremé trumpeter James Andrews. Jazz and blues belter René Marie filled the space of the stage as soon as she hit it, singing the hell out of Billie Holiday’s part in “My Sweet Hunk O’ Trash.” She also delivered Mavis Staples’ gospel part in a dirge rendition of “When The Saints Go Marching In.”
Trumpeter Arturo Sandoval showcased the most spectacular chops of the cast, contributing a spectacular solo on “I Wonder.” Sandoval tryed to channel Armstrong’s early tone, complete with casually tossed-off, highest-of-high notes. Head wrapped in Ochún yellow, Díaz, ventured into the evening’s least characteristic and most dramatic number: a slow, minor-key habanera. Evoking the boom box sound of Centro Habana, she alternated with a cascading Sandoval solo of 32nd-notes, which terminated in the final melodic twist of “A Night In Tunisia.”
Other guests included Kermit Ruffins, who bantered with Dr. John on “Pair Of Deuces,” laughing through his trumpet in true New Orleans fashion. Trumpeter Wendell Brunious spun fine, complicated lines on “Memories Of You,” evoking an old New Orleans acoustic room and appearing unaware of the microphone. Rickie Lee Jones served up a stirring rendition of “Makin’ Whoopee.”
The night’s one misfire was the penultimate number, Armstrong’s 1931 standard tune “The Peanut Vendor.” The rhythm didn’t feel right to this Cubanophile, but that too is characteristic of New Orleans tradition. The show ended with an up-tempo reprise of “Saints” as the people down front in the audience formed a second line.
At the center of the concert were Dr. John’s vocals, though his piano-playing certainly could have come to the forefront. Horns were played by Alonzo Bowens (tenor sax), Jason Mingledorff (baritone sax), Gary Winters (trumpet), and Sarah Morrow (trombone) with John Fohl on guitar and Kenneth Williams on percussion.
Ultimately, the star of the night was neither Louis Armstrong nor Dr. John, but New Orleans, as it should have been. A full house applauded exuberantly at every opportunity, left the show satisfied and recapped highlights in the subway car on the way home.