Malcolm John Rebennack, the invaluable pianist/singer/New Orleans funkmaster better known as Dr. John, claims that it was Louis Armstrong himself who came to him in a dream and not only inspired Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch but also blessed the project. “Louis’ spirit came to me and told me to do something, that’s how this whole thing started,” says Dr. John. “Louis told me, ‘Take my music and do it your way’…That made me feel very open to try some different things, because I felt was that his spirit had OK’d this record.”
I’m not going to doubt the good doctor who, as he has informed us in song and prose (his memoir), has held “sizzling” gris gris in his hand and is descended from one Pauline Rebennack, who was busted in the 1840s for running “a hoodoo operation.” That Satchmo’s shade might visit Rebennack, who seriously studied with spiritualists and “santeria and orisha people,” doesn’t strain credulity (too much).
But it seems just as likely that the new album’s inspiration came from the Satchmo tribute concerts Dr. John, his band, and an array of guest artists have performed over the past two years, like the one I caught in 2012 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The recording features much of the same material and supporting players and singers. Dr. John co-produced Ske-Dat-De-Dat with Sarah Morrow, his band’s musical director and trombonist. They selected thirteen songs Louis Armstrong recorded over his lengthy career, from the 1920s to the 60s, reinterpreting the material, and often radically so — with the intent of remaining true to Armstrong’s “spirit.”
Ske-Dat-De-Dat has the strengths, and some of the flaws, of the Armstrong concerts. Not all the guest artists fit, and sometimes the connection to Satchmo seems tenuous indeed. But when it works, as it mostly does, the album delivers considerable pleasure and pleasant surprises. Even the lesser tracks have something — a vivid trumpet solo, a soulful vocal performance — that makes them worth hearing.
You could argue, and some critics undoubtedly will, that a stylistically diverse collection of songs, with little relation to one another besides having been recorded by Armstrong, doesn’t add up to a cohesive album, much less a fitting tribute to Satchmo and an invocation of his spirit. But what exactly is that spirit? Louis Armstrong is a titan of jazz, a founding father of the music whose accomplishments and influence are vast.
But “Pops” also was pop — he was one of the first African American artists to “cross over” to the Top 40, and his influence extended beyond jazz. Moreover — and here’s where Dr. John and Sarah Morrow can look to him to justify their reinventions — he radically reworked other artists’ material, like Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” and “Lazy River”, transforming them with his unique melodic approach and phrasing. He did the same with lesser material, like his Dixieland take on “Hello Dolly”, which in 1964 knocked The Beatles off the top of the charts. (Satchmo fun fact: In 1970, on one of his final albums, he covered “Give Peace a Chance”, by that noted jazz combo the Plastic Ono Band.)
Ske-Dat-De-Dat opens strong with “What a Wonderful World”, the Blind Boys of Alabama (who provided some glorious moments at that Brooklyn show) rendering the chorus a capella. A second’s pause, and the band, led by the horn section enters, sets up Dr. John’s terrific lead vocal, which is very much infused with Satchmo’s spirit, and his phrasing and timing. Rebennack and company — including Nicholas Payton on trumpet — actually improve on Armstrong’s 1967 original, replacing its cloying sentimentality with a spirited but salty optimism.
In his memoir Under a Hoodoo Moon, Rebennack, recounting how he formed his first “Dr. John” band, deprecates his vocal abilities: “My voice was low and froggy; [band guitarist] Alvin ‘Shine’ Robinson … was a real singer, not a shucker like me.” But on Ske-Dat-De-Dat, the 73-year-old Rebennack turns in some of his best singing ever. His voice is still froggy (and his range limited), but he deploys it wonderfully, with soul, playfulness, and wit. The album’s best tracks are those on which his vocal presence dominates — “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” (with the Blind Boys), “That’s My Home”, “Dippermouth Blues”, “Gutbucket Blues”, “Memories of You”, and “When You’re Smiling”.
A roster of ace trumpeters accompanies him: Terence Blanchard, James Andrews (a ball of fire at the Brooklyn concert), Nicholas Payton, and Wendell Brunious, here on flugelhorn. Arturo Sandoval, whom I have regarded as a showboat, catches the Satchmo spirit and sound on “Memories of You”.
Dr. John duets with blues singer Shemekia Copeland on “Sweet Hunk O’ Trash” — Satchmo cut the tune in 1949, with Billie Holiday as his insult-flinging sparring partner — and with Bonnie Raitt, on “I’ve Got the World on a String”. Though neither is a knockout, they work better than several tracks without Dr. John’s vocals — the Latin rap version of one of Satchmo’s greatest early recordings, “Tight Like That”; “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”, with New Orleans R&B vocalist Ledisi; and “Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child”, in a re-harmonized modernistic jazz arrangement, with soul singer Anthony Hamilton.
None of them is a complete dud — Sandoval’s red-hot soloing saves “Tight Like That” — they just feel like they belong on different albums. Had they been pruned, Ske-Dat-De-Dat really would have been a dream tribute to Satchmo.