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Solo Practice 

Twenty years ago, Dr. John single-handedly recorded one of the best albums of his career.

In l982, when Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack was released on LP, Professor Longhair was a recently deceased cult favorite and James Booker was in serious decline. Allen Toussaint and Fats Domino weren't playing out all that much, and Henry Butler, Jon Cleary and Harry Connick Jr. had yet to record any albums. Wynton Marsalis and Aaron Neville weren't the stars they are today; in general, New Orleans music did not have the national profile it presently enjoys. So it was a good time for Dr. John to make a splash with a solo album of New Orleans music.

And make a splash he did. Mac was a studio musician and an unsigned ex-rock star when he hooked up with the small Baltimore company Clean Cuts for this recording. It was a critical success, with raves from Rolling Stone, The New York Times and others, and did well enough commercially to prompt a second Clean Cuts solo LP, The Brightest Smile in Town, as well as create a new career for Rebennack as an internationally touring solo pianist. To celebrate the LP's 20th anniversary, Clean Cuts has released a new expanded version culled from those sessions. It contains seven tracks not on the original LP (though four of these were released earlier on CD); of these seven, a couple are as good as the original album, and the rest are just a notch below.

Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack shows above all what a great boogie-woogie player Rebennack is. "Mac's Boogie," "Honey Dripper," and "Pinetop" from the original LP are joined here by the strongest of the new tracks: "Deep Blues," a cool Mac original with a surprising modulation in the middle. On these tunes Mac takes the pounding left-hand ostinatos of the genre's greats -- Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson -- and adds the swirling right-hand licks derived from masters like Fess and Huey Smith, tailoring them to fit the key and rhythm of the moment. There is a lot of nuance here, but unlike Henry Butler or James Booker, virtuosos whose flights of fancy are near-impossible to duplicate, Mac was and is accessible and inspiring to the average blues piano-banger. A friend once remarked that Mac only knows 40 licks, but rearranges them endlessly to fit any situation while still making them sound fresh. This CD proves that point.

It also illuminates Mac's mastery of the gospel idiom, featuring "Dorothy," a lovely gospel waltz written for his mother, and an instructive version of "When the Saints Go Marching In." This song of New Orleans songs was a hymn long before Louis Armstrong eased it into the jazz repertoire in the 1930s, and Mac's churchy version -- with a luscious minor-mode intro -- is much more flavorful than most of the 1,001 Dixieland versions you've heard. These two tracks are joined by CD-only takes on "Silent Night" (sounding very secular and a little monotonous) and an exquisite "Wade in the Water." The new, improved CD also has a second "Dorothy" take which is clearly not the equal of the first yet will be welcomed by the tune's many fans.

This being New Orleans music, there are also overt Latin influences: a sprightly, boogie-woogie-fied version of the Brazilian choro "Delicado"; a meandering tango with intriguing changes, "Dance a La Negres"; and "Memories of Professor Longhair," Mac's funky 12-chorus homage to Fess and a masterpiece of New Orleans music. There are also hybrid pieces, medium-tempo numbers that aren't so easily classified: the rollicking "Big Mac" (a tune he's interpolated into his concert version of "Such a Night" for years), "Ti-Na-Na," and "Careless Love," full of the right-hand fluttering Doc calls "butterfly style." If you can say anything about these pieces, it's that they bear the stamp of James Booker, whom Mac calls (in his autobiography) a "genius" who did "many things that were so outrageously beautiful."

Booker died young from his bad habits; Mac kicked his and recently turned 61. Clean Cuts will reissue an expanded Brightest Smile in Town next year, but the liner notes to Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack mention little chance of more solo piano CDs from the good Doctor. This is a shame, as the man is a repository of New Orleans, indeed American music, with hundreds if not thousands of standards and oddball tunes at his fingertips. But that's the way it is, and it's all the more reason to get this, one of the two or three best albums of a formidable 45-year career.

click to enlarge A new reissue of Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack shows the pianist's formidable boogie-woogie licks.
  • A new reissue of Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack shows the pianist's formidable boogie-woogie licks.
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