When The Night Tripper tripped fantastic through the classic New Orleans R&B canon on his seminal 1972 album, Gumbo, he set a parallel benchmark for his groundbreaking albums like In the Right Place and Desitively Bonnaroo. His career's followed that path ever since, alternating stellar boundary-pushing creations like 1998's Anutha Zone with heartfelt tributes like 2000's Duke Ellington homage Duke Elegant. His explorations of the American songbook and its greatest composers have yielded some of his most cohesive and stirring albums, ranging from the standards on 1989's In a Sentimental Mood to the classic 1992 Crescent City musical tapestry of Goin' Back to New Orleans.
Rebennack's shuffling down memory lane again on his new CD Mercernary, pouring through the songbook of late, great lyricist Johnny Mercer. It's not the first time he's drawn inspiration from Mercer, as "Accentuate the Positive" remains a staple of Rebennack's live shows. The kinship is understandable, as Mercer songs like "That Old Black Magic" and "Blues in the Night" pack a darker, hipper edge than the creations of Mercer contemporaries like Rodgers and Hammerstein.
In Dr. John's hands, Mercer's ineffably charming lyrics evoke an undeniable sense of place -- New Orleans and the Southern heartland stretching north to Memphis -- yet remain universal. Mercernary unfolds with rich layers of vivid imagery and unforgettable characters. A girl with the stringy hair and bow-knees in "Personality." A train a-callin' to a kid in knee-pants in "Blues in the Night." Gravy on the rice and watermelon on the vine sustaining "Lazy Bones." Watching smoke rings in "Dream." Drifters and a huckleberry friend floating down "Moon River." Rebennack's one original song on Mercernary, "I Ain't No Johnny Mercer," was inspired by a number of unrecorded lines from a Mercer book. The payoff? An unthinkable, delicious couplet of "sexy" and "apoplexy."
The wordplay resonates deeper with the accompaniment of the Lower 911, Rebennack's backing band. Drummer Herman Ernest III (far too often overlooked in the pantheon of great New Orleans drummers) and bassist David Barard have been Rebennack's backline anchor for more than a decade. Their stutter-strut intro of "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby" and lilting Caribbean sway on an instrumental version of "I'm an Old Cow Hand" are rhythmic locks. Most recent addition John Fohl has dialed into 911 seamlessly on guitar, bringing an acoustic Delta-blues intro to "Blues in the Night" and some wiry funk comping to "Come Rain or Come Shine." And a number of longtime Rebennack horn honchos and longtime NOLA associates contribute brilliant cameos; trumpeter Charlie Miller's bawdy plunger on "Personality" and the triple-sax line of Fats Domino foil Herb Hardesty, Eric Traub and Alonzo Bowen kick brass like it's the1950s and they're cutting a track at Cosimo Matassa's J&M Studios. "Tangerine" is the only sour note on the album, a lazy unripe mid-tempo instrumental that sounds like a half-finished song sketch.
It all comes home with closing track "Save the Bones for Henry Jones," a Danny Barker-penned song that Mercer incorporated into his own repertoire. Late New Orleans icon Barker shares the remarkable qualities that define Mercer and Rebennack -- deft wit, an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and blues, idiosyncratic and unforgettable vocal delivery, and an appreciation for unexpected turns of phrase that convert deceptively simple songs into high art. In signature Rebennack fashion, he makes "Save the Bones for Henry Jones" part homage, part fresh canvas. Vamping at the song's conclusion, Rebennack's fonkified syntax turns "vegetarian" into "vege-terrible."
At 65 years of age, Dr. John has nothing left to prove. As a pianist, producer, singer, songwriter and bandleader, he's created and honed a singular sound for five decades. But like fellow pioneers Sonny Rollins, Bob Dylan and Ralph Stanley, he's still relentlessly pursuing his artistic vision in the studio and on the bandstand. In the post-Katrina landscape, his contributions to and for New Orleans have never been more important. By closing the page on Mercenary with "Save the Bones for Henry Jones," it's a poignant reminder that you can take the man out of the Third Ward, but you can never take the Third Ward out of the man.
Scott Jordan is editor of Lafayette's Independent Weekly. Contact him at email@example.com