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Brooklyn Academy of Music
Saturday, March 31
Better than: The time when nobody talked about Louis Armstrong being hip. (Which he was.)
As Louis Armstrong tributes go, this one—the first installment of “Insides Out,” Dr. John’s three-week residency at the Brooklyn Academy of Music— sidestepped (thankfully) the sanctimony of most such affairs. There were some obvious markers. Five trumpeters—three of them born, bred, and now living in New Orleans—guested through the night with Dr. John’s nine-piece band. Nineteen songs were culled from Armstrong’s recorded oeuvre. At one point halfway through, Dr. John looked up and said a few words about Armstrong’s legacy and our collective “duty to keep it alive, to pass it on down like he did.”
That line was pretty much it for overt tribute, and entirely it in terms of Dr. John addressing the audience or even pretty much looking our way. Throughout, in his playing, singing, as general presence, Dr. John seemed curiously subdued. Which is different than uninspired or deadpan. His vocals were sharp. And when he dug in at the piano, he sounded strong. He just didn’t do much of that. It wasn’t that kind of gig. As might be expected, the evening’s playlist favored the more popular of Armstrong’s recordings, as opposed to his Hot Fives and Sevens masterpieces (though there was some of that), and tilted toward crowd-pleasing blues. It would be easy to quibble with song choices; I found myself wanting, among others, “St. James Infirmary,” “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” and “West End Blues.” But what we got made sense, covered ground, and called up fun and funkiness within Armstrong’s career, if not what changed the world. For flecks of that, you’d need to listen closely. Dr. John grew up in the same Third Ward neighborhood as Armstrong; his funk, grit, swing and familiar Yat drawl draws as knowingly on Armstrong’s inventive phrasing as did Billie Holiday’s singing, albeit to a different end. That showed, too, if not in a showy way.
The Blind Boys of Alabama helped begin and end the show, and though they might have been featured more, they lent uplift “What a Wonderful World” and grounding to “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The arrangements, credited to trombonist Sarah Morrow and tenor saxophonist Alonzo Bowens, were varied. The one for “That’s My Home” was slick and busy to the point of obscuring Dr. John’s tasty comping. But “You Rascal, You” sounded like the majestic R&B voicings used by another New Orleans hero (and former Dr. John associate), the late arranger Wardell Quezergue. This band was good and tight, punchy or demure as needed. Still, there wasn’t much call or room for Dr. John to be Dr. John, pianistically or even just in terms of vibe.
The five trumpeters represented a wide range of sounds and approaches: James Andrews—”Satchmo of the Ghetto” in the Tremé neighborhood of his youth—plays hot, showy and always in a bluesy vein. His is the stuff of caricature by lesser, or less genuine, lips. He hammed it up, sure, grinding his hips and waving his arms, but his growls and riffs were spot-on. His “Dippermouth Blues” was less about sitting in a room and transcribing Armstrong than how that influence plays out in the street, among musicians who live this stuff every day. Kermit Ruffins is, back in New Orleans, in some ways the modern embodiment of Armstrong the pot-smoking populist entertainer. (For a taste of his connection to Armstrong, try this.)
The Armstrong-like rasp in his voice flashed during his banter with Dr. John about gambling in “Pair of Deuces,” which seemed forced. Yet playing his horn, laying back just right on the beat, coaxing out sweet notes, Ruffins sounded genuine on “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams.” Cuban-born Arturo Sandoval was the night’s only player with Armstrong-like athleticism as a high-note specialist, a fact he played up on “I Wonder” (however absent the musicality with which Armstrong reached such heights). Still, Sandoval is a fabulous technician with a tender side and plenty of bite when needed: These charms shone on “Call That a Buddy” and “Tight Like This.” The most interesting of the guest trumpeters was Wendell Brunious, who has moved back to New Orleans after a long stint overseas, and whose playing traverses a rarely crossed divide in his hometown: that of traditional and post-bop jazz. With a soft and filmy tone, he slid in and out of convention on “Memories of You” and played not-so-conventional riffs on blues tunes like “Sweet Hunk of Trash.” Roy Hargrove, among the best modern-jazz trumpeters of his generation, played off Dr. John’s vocal phrasing nicely on flugelhorn during “Wonderful World” and soloed sharply on “Mack the Knife” (more on that one soon). But mostly, he seemed out of place. The arrangements didn’t leave much space or offer much logic for his improvisational inclinations. And he might not have dug the mood: During a closing full-cast version of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” he hung back with the house band horn, and literally waved off a solo chorus turn.
This concert stressed pop appeal though mostly vocals, often pairing Dr. John with a guest vocalist. Rene Marie has a powerful voice that she controls magnificently. She’s honed a persona, in grand blueswoman tradition. But she teased and cajoled Dr. John into something more stagey than we’ve come to expect. Rickie Lee Jones’ less precise baby-girl blurts on “Makin’ Whoopee” did a better job of urging out Dr. John’s best and bluesiest twisted drawl. Cuban rapper Telmary Diaz, of the innovative Havana-based group Interactivo, was the least logical casting decision as well as the best. Her rapid-fire Spanish freestyling hinted at rhythmic revolutions big and small inspired by Armstrong. She was best on a dreamily slow-funked “Mack the Knife.” Here, Diaz smeared her rap all over the beat, unexpectedly coming closest to conjuring Dr. John’s mystical appeal. Dr. John rose from his piano to dance a bit, seemingly for his own pleasure (like Thelonious Monk, minus the circles), as if in assent.
Even Sandoval’s erudition on the Cuban classic “El Manisero” couldn’t rescue that one; there was something terribly amiss in the band’s rhythmic expression. The show, growing long by then, might have ended weakly. But then came the Blind Boys again, and echoes of the eerie minor-key slow-dirge version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” on Dr. John’s 2004 “New Awlinz: Dis Dat or D’Udda.” In minutes, in jazz funeral style, things would turn uptempo, with a procession of guest-star solos. But 90 minutes in, softly and slowly, Dr. John had night tripped a bit, leaving his stamp on Louis, too.
Critical bias: This crowd can’t be all bad; during “Saints” they clapped correctly, on beats 2 and 4.
Random notebook dump: The loudest clapping I heard came from a few rows behind me—New Orleans pianist Henry Butler, now a Brooklynite.