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Mercernary (2006)

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Dr. John

Dr. John's been on a roll since he signed with Blue Note. Each title he's released on the label has been solid, full of New Orleans funk, hot R&B, and swinging, finger-poppin' jazz. Since the Hurricane Katrina disaster, dozens of Crescent City players have been active, and trying to bring the message of the music to the masses like never before. Mercernary is a program almost entirely made up of tunes by the legendary Johnny Mercer. There is no explanation for this, other than Mac Rebennack has always admired his lyricism and the striking rhythmic originality of the rhythmic possibilities in his music. Other than a few guests to fill out the proceedings here and there, the band on all tracks is Dr. John with his fine Lower 911. The music here is joyful, gritty, and slippery -- check out the opener "Blues in the Night" that just roars with backline funk, or the spit and polish on "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby," both written with Harold Arlen. The switch-up is from the Mercer period, in the blues stroll of Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen's "Personality." "Hit the Road to Dreamland" is another blues, with gorgeous piano work by Rebennack. Herbert Hardesty's saxophone adds so much smoke and steam to the leisurely walk that the tune threatens at any moment to erupt into a full-on New Orleans jam, but never does. The reading of "I'm an Old Cow Hand" is a complete reworking of the tune, with killer second-line funky drumming courtesy of Herman V. Ernest III, and the middle-register piano magic by Dr. John struts the tune into the street effortlessly. Some may raise eyebrows at the big horns of Charlie Miller, and John Fohl's electric guitar on "Old Black Magic," but to hell with 'em. This old nugget is given new life, breadth, and an entirely new feel here. Likewise "Moon River," given a soul-jazz strut, will make some cry heresy, but they'll be drowned out by the joyous resonance of the performance itself because it has never been heard this way. Dr. John's interpretive singing is as fine as can be on Mercernary, and on this performance in particular. As if to address his critics, the good doctor lays down his own "I Ain't No Johnny Mercer," a nocturnal, B-3 driven groover that is full of hoodoo sass and greasy funk. Mercernary gives Johnny Mercer's age-old pop songs a new soul twist. And if the man is turning in his grave, he's probably shaking his skeleton, baby! One is struck at just how easy the Lower 911 and Dr. John make this material seem. They virtually write a manual on how standards should be interpreted in the 21st century: with reverence for the creativity and sophistication of the originals, but bringing some of the blessed nightclub vulgarity back into the music, taking it out of the sky and the hallowed hall and putting into back into the barroom where the ears and asses of the people can take it in and shake it. ~ Thom Jurek