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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Dr. John and New Orleans Piano

By Robert Jackson Wood

Photo: Dr. John

There's a lot to love about New Orleans musician Dr. John. If you can't get behind the voodoo walking sticks or the bone-and-teeth necklaces or the unapologetically earnest fawning over Bourbon Street and the bayou, then there's always the inimitable gravelly voice to fall back on. There’s also something alluring about a Grammy-winning pianist who can start a story with "this guy was pistol whipping Ronnie Barron" and end it with his finger getting shot off. (It was subsequently sewn back on.)

But that same larger-than-life personality makes it easy to forget that beneath the feathers and the bones, the "gris gris" accoutrements and the rowdy past, is an important torchbearer of the distinctive New Orleans piano style, one that remains a good example of an American music still tied indissolubly to place, despite the whims of the networked world.

Much as Louis Armstrong said of early jazz, you know the New Orleans piano style when you hear it. It’s somehow both funky and lazy—funky because of the syncopated bass lines derived from Caribbean music and second-line parade rhythms (watch a second-line procession here), lazy because of the distinctly cascading rolls that make the music seem like it's stumbling from note to note along the path of least resistance. It's as though New Orleans' brand of joie de vivre were tied indissoluably to homeostasis; no other music intentionally trips itself to experience the bliss of falling.

Finding origins can be futile, but the style’s modern form emerges as early as the 1940s with pianists like Champion Jack Dupree, a Golden Glove-winning boxer and important predecessor of Dr. John, whose tunes married the languid flourishes mentioned above with the blues. In "Strollin'," Dupree uses that right-hand filigree to evoke an unhurried Nola pace:

Champion Jack Dupree, "Strollin'"

Photo: Champion Jack Dupree

It was Dupree's recordings of “Junker Blues” and “Frankie and Johnny” that paved the way for the comparatively cleaned up style of another Crescent City legend, Fats Domino. The junkie becomes the fat man, but the spirit remains:

Champion Jack Dupree, "Junker Blues," (written in the '40s, recorded in 1958)

Fats Domino, "The Fat Man" (1949)

But an arguably more important progeny of "Junker Blues" was the New Orleans classic "Tipitina," which another giant of New Orleans piano, Professor Longhair, based directly on Dupree's tune. In “Tipitina,” Longhair transforms Dupree's chord progressions and the bouncy shuffle of Domino into a stilted, stuttering Mardi Gras anthem:

Professor Longhair, "Tipitina" (1972)

Photo: Professor Longhair

James Booker, who taught Harry Connick, Jr and who remains criminally unknown outside of New Orleans circles, pays tribute to Longhair in his own version, which begins by quoting the delirious upward slurs of the original before before launching into a more Dominoesque shuffle:

James Booker, "Tipitina" (1977)

Photo: James Booker

Finally, we get to the Doctor himself, who recorded "Tipitina" in 1992. You can hear Dr. John imitating both Longhair's stilted piano style and his cracked vocal delivery:

Dr. John, "Tipitina" (1992)

It's touching, really, how deferentially the New Orleans style has been passed down from player to player. In each iteration, you can hear traces of the others along with a palpable love for both a city and a style. Luckily through Dr. John, the tradition rolls on.

Dr. John will be at BAM March 29—April 14.


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