What’s bigger: Mac Rebennack, or the New Orleans musical tradition his alter ego Dr. John attempts to encompass? It’s a tough question, especially since the word “sprawling” aptly describes both his girth and his ambition. Take, for example, an album whose 18 tracks swell to seventy minutes; a record that contains a pastiche of popular music’s most lauded musicians; a disc whose stated purpose is to define the three centuries of the history of the city of N’awlinz . Like the man who takes on this task, the goal of this project is nothing else except massive.
Granted, so was his first record for the vaunted Blue Note label, Duke Elegant, in which the Cajun bandleader took on the classic works of one Edward Kennedy Ellington. Similarly, his Creole Moon not only sought to capture the Cajun feel of the Crescent City, but also marked a [sadly, final] collaboration with the unfortunately mortal immortal, Doc Pomus. But while that 2001 album focused mainly on the—obviously—Creole influences of New Orleans music, this year’s model tries instead to package individually the flavor of every single ingredient of the city’s potent musical gumbo. Both aspects of the somewhat annoying, overly-stylized title are correct: N’awlinz: Dis, Dat or D’udda is not only trying to paint a complete portrait of the place your map calls New Orleans, but it’s also trying very hard to make sure that it catches a little bit of everything in its rather large net.
The result, to kill the pun, is nonetheless tasty. As usual, Rebennack assembles an incredible allotment of New Orleans luminaries to pay tribute to the city: locals Cyril Neville, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and even Randy Newman [o.k., he was only born there] rub musical shoulders with the likes of Mavis Staples, Willie Nelson, and B. B. King. We get to hear King croon about his prowess as a “Hen Layin’ Rooster”, Willie Nelson complain about his lying woman, and Mavis Staples singin’ ‘bout her Lord. Juxtaposed to her incredible Gospel is the ludicrous stab at Scriptural interpretation offered by Randy Newman in “I Ate up the Apple Tree”, which is replete with a trademark Newman spoken-word serio-comic bridge. Brilliant trumpeter Nicolas Payton has his horn sing of “Dear Old Southland”, while the Mardi Gras Indians add their insipring vocalizations and rhythmic breathing to the bluesy “Marie Laveau” and the traditional “Chicken Le Pas” [rhymes with Mardi Gras.]
As wide as the scope of N’awlinz is, it’s also the span of its potentially tragic flaw: the self-awareness of Rebennack’s project teeters on the edge of ruining it. It’s one thing to open with an aptly titled “Quatre Parishe”, and it’s somewhat understandable to segue directly out of that instrumental into the rather obvious “Saints”. But even as a new and interesting arrangement of “Saints” fades out, it becomes annoying to hear the traditional melody of “Saints” come marching right back in: granted, this all-too-familiar melody provides an interesting backbone for the Gospel classic “Lay My Burden Down”, but the problem remains that the good Dr. just might be prescribing too heavy a dose of New Orleans medicine. This problematic aspect of the album is perhaps best seen in it’s title track. Self-referentially spelling out the patois so obvious in Rebennack’s throaty voice, “Dis, Dat or D’udda” almost seems as if it’s trying too heard to prove that it really is born of the city here spelled out as N’awlinz. Unfortunately, it seems as if Dr. John is in some spots devising his album more to remind the casual listener of vague memories of a drunken Mardi Gras party than to represent to the already-initiated the cultural genius of such a metropolitan melting pot.
Still, N’awlinz: Dis, Dat or D’udda has a funky beat, and you can dance to it. Despite some low points [which tend more towards the bland than the unlistenable], Dr. John’s latest effort is, if nothing else, one hell of a party. The fare might be more “Hard Rock Café: New Orleans” than “Tipitina’s”, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless. Especially for those who know not the works of one Mac Rebennack, or for anyone who doesn’t yet own an album by the Meters, Allen Toussaint, or Professor Longhair, N’awlinz is sure to give a welcome, cursory sampling of a city’s musical styles that fall easily into the catch-all categories of dis, dat or d’udda.