Pensacola, Florida
Monday September 24th 2018

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Trippin’ Out with Dr. John

By Jessica Forbes

For decades now, Dr. John has served as the primary sultan-shaman of New Orleans funk and he wears the crown (and the headdresses) like no one else. The musical trips he’s taken, always inspired by the culture of his native Crescent City, have incorporated musical peers from all ages and backgrounds throughout the years while remaining entirely distinct. That’s a tradition he is continuing on his latest album, “Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit Of Satch,” released on Aug. 19.

Born Malcolm “Mac” John Rebennack, Jr. in New Orleans in 1940, Dr. John, along with his band The Nite Trippers, will make a stop at The Saenger Theatre on Sept. 18.

Shortly after his appearance at the Curacao North Sea Jazz Festival, Dr. John sent in answers via email to Inweekly. The previous week, “The Spirit of Satch” debuted at number one on the Billboard jazz charts.

“The Spirit of Satch” is a tribute to Louis Armstrong, who like Dr. John, served as an ambassador for an art form born in his city while putting his own mark on the music.

“I’m honored that people hear the spirit of Louis in the album,” Dr. John stated of the album’s success out of the gate. “I’m proud we had 22 musicians from New Orleans on the record. I think Louis would like that.”

The album comprises 13 tracks that are all new renditions of songs Armstrong previously recorded, featuring the Nite Tripper himself along with multiple collaborators, ranging from Bonnie Raitt to New Orleans-born singer and R&B star Ledisi.

Armstrong’s benevolent specter looms large in Dr. John’s life figuratively when it comes to blues and swing, and (at least once) pretty close to literally: the inspiration to cover Armstrong came a few years ago when Dr. John said the legendary jazz figure visited him in a dream and encouraged him to put the Dr. John spin on some of Armstrong’s songs.

“Louis’ music meant a ton to me from as far back as when my pa had a record shop and sold Louis’ records. Whether it was the ‘Gutbucket Blues,’ ‘Sweet Hunk of Trash’—any songs Louis cut were slammin,’” he wrote of the recordings he listened to as a kid and as a young player—first on guitar, later piano—that have made it on “The Spirit of Satch.”

The album enlisted the talents of trumpeters like Arturo Sandoval and New Orleans’ own Terence Blanchard for stylings on Armstrong’s signature instrument. Other guests include The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Shemeika Copeland, The Blind Boys of Alabama, who Dr. John co-headlined a tour with in support of his 2012 album, “Locked Down,” which Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys produced. That collaboration—which garnered Dr. John’s sixth Grammy—was born from stage time together at 2011’s Bonnaroo festival, the name of which was derived from Dr. John’s 1974 LP “Desitively Bonnaroo.”

“Sarah Morrow and I picked the guest artists that had the best spirit for the song they sounded the hippest on. I was aiming for the best players to bring Louis’ tribute to life,” he recalled of settling on collaborators for the tunes.

Morrow, a trombonist who distinguished herself in 1995 by becoming the first female instrumentalist to join Ray Charles’ all-star orchestra, first worked with Dr. John in 2010 and now serves as musical director of the Nite Trippers.

“As soon as I heard her arrangements I knew she had a lot to offer the world, and the best way to bring this project to life would be to have her produce and arrange it with me,” Dr. John stated.  “She pulled ‘The Spirit of Satch’ together even though she had to play, write charts and produce.”

And Dr. John would know. He himself started off as a studio and backing musician before going on to arrange, produce, and lead his own bands in the 1950s and early 1960s. He even made it to Pensacola in its club heyday, along with many other stops in the region.

“My pa gave me some good advice in those days, to take a job with the old men on the Chitlin’ Circuit. That’s what I did, traveling all over the South,” he remembered.  After a short stint in prison in the mid-1960s, he moved to California and worked as a studio musician again. In 1968, his debut album “Gris-Gris” marked the birth of Dr. John, The Nite Tripper.

While he never had the opportunity to play with Armstrong, he did meet the jazz legend in the late ‘60s when the two shared a booking agent, Joe Glazer.

“It always inspired us knowing we had that connection to Louis. He was a creative genius, so it was special to me that he came from my neighborhood,” he stated.

Today, the musicians Dr. John sees picking up and carrying on the traditions especially well are in the city’s brass bands who are reaching out to younger musicians, keeping the continuum going.

“I’m proud of the guys in the Rebirth band. They’re teaching kids in the Cabildo to play with their Roots of Music charity,” he wrote. “I believe young musicians in New Orleans still respect Louis because their elders brought an understanding of his music to them. That’s what inspires me.”

DR. JOHN AND THE NITE TRIPPERS
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 18
WHERE: Saenger Theatre, 118 S. Palafox
COST: $49-$79
DETAILS: pensacolasaenger.com