Marcia Ball is most renowned for her superb piano playing, especially her steamy stride piano. She’s been invited back onstage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Music Festival almost every single year since 1978 and was recently honored with a W.C. Handy award. After 17 years with roots-crazed Rounder, she recently made a jump to Alligator for Presumed Innocent. It’s easy to suspect that Marcia was asked to come up with something a bit different for her new label. This time out, in emphasizing her singing, her piano playing has taken a more minor role. That might be all right except that Marcia is such an exceptional piano player.
The answer to the question “where’s the piano?” may be a bit disappointing to her regular fans, but Alligator’s strategy may be to try to broaden the niche. Because changing what they did best in trying to appeal to a larger audience broadsides many other artists, hopefully this tactic works for Marcia. For the sake of argument, an hour of straight stride piano can easily overdose the listener, unless any of those greats like Fats Waller, Champion Jack, James Booker, or Professor Longhair happens to be dancing on the keys. However, Marcia always shows good pacing and spices her material with blues, swamp boogie, and Gulf Coast rhythm and blues.
For me, the best thing about stride piano is knowing it’s almost impossible to play well. And that the left hand (piano’s traditionally “lazy hand”) is forced to go to work for a living, rolling the bass, thumping the rhythm while providing some melody lines, and working every bit as hard as the right hand carrying the melody. Plus I take a perverse pleasure in realizing those who have had formal piano lessons have to unlearn much of what they’d spent countless hours practicing. They have to break the teacher’s rules and tap their feet or risk losing the near invisible beat that is snaking the bouncing rhythm along.
Marcia occasionally has a delicate light stagger to her playing on the top keys that breathes a natural familiarity with Louisiana rhythms. In her playing, there is nothing jagged or forced, overdone or overstated—the predictable downfall of most studio musicians who can pick up the form but not the feel. Marcia Ball’s just got it. Her break on the quirky love song “You Make Me Happy” is as much fun as it is elegantly tasteful. The second-line syncopation and horns bring back many good memories of Antoine Domino, the Professor, and all the Meters. Even when playing blues, Marcia’s progressions are not your characteristic blues changes. She dips into Gulf Coast rhythm and blues with “I’m Coming Down with the Blues”. Her singing voice is bright and clear throughout, a high but well-pitched voice singing over the lower blues register.
Though there is no disguising the genuine sparkle, this outing is just a bit slick. Try not to imagine this playing way in the background on a state-of-the-art CD sound system in a trendy microbrewery—broadcast at a low volume so as not to compete with the chatter of the bobos or the clatter of the etched glass mugs, and barely steaming up the stained glass entry doors. But (this is an important but) the slight taste of her piano work throughout the CD (and notably on “Thibodaux, Louisiana”) is more than good enough to encourage anyone to search out more Marcia Ball, both on stage and at the record store. Her Gatorhythms, Hot Tamale Baby, and Let Me Play With Your Poodle are rumored to be her finest records to date and well worth finding. Or even the next one, because you never know.