Sunday, November 20, 2016

Dr. John puts his own stamp on the Louis Armstrong legacy, with help from trumpet star Nicholas Payton

Tribute shows tend to spin into orbits of their own when the generating star already has a significant, decades-old brand. Thus it
Dr. John channels the Creole musical mix of New Orleans.
was when Dr. John, the New Orleans pianist-singer steeped in that city's musical gumbo, came to the Palladium Saturday night with his "Spirit of Satch" show.

The selections leaned toward the sentimental and pop sides of Louis Armstrong's music.  That was signaled at the start with the performance of Bob Thiele's syrupy favorite, "What a Wonderful World," well-known through Satchmo's vocal warmth in the movie "Good Morning Vietnam."

As he presented himself here, Dr. John favors slow tempos that allow lots of room for his deep-delving piano flourishes between phrases as well as mellow, rough-hewn vocals. A surprise application of this preference came late in the show, with a somber version of "When the Saints Go Marching In." That served as a memento mori  to reinforce the significance of the skull on top of the star's piano.

The show featured a drawback of amplified shows in the Palladium. These I've accumulated anecdotally over the Carmel showplace's history, as the naturally good acoustics of the hall are sometimes overridden by the sound design. The first part of Dr. John's show was too loud, and there was here and there throughout a noisy jumble that overshot the goal of creating excitement. "Mack the Knife" totally sacrificed the Kurt Weill melody in favor of a monotonous churn; it was the concert's clearest failure.

A locally recruited ensemble of saxes and brass was sometimes brilliantly effective, sometimes ragged. Excellent leadership and spirited trombone playing from music director Sarah Morrow helped things to jell. Dr. John seems a largely self-involved performer, though he did credit his sidemen by name at the end of the show, and was guided haltingly (he uses a cane) along the front of the stage to shake hands with fans who came forward.

Otherwise, he stayed rooted to the keyboard, for the most part a grand piano that he attacked with soulful abandon.  His sheer command of vocal delivery highlighting a song's meaning was at its best in "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams." Though unconventional, it might serve as an oblique aid to the polished Great American Songbook Academy participants who come to the Palladium each spring. His piano-playing was fully complementary to a memorable vocal.

Nicholas Payton was the show's guest star. As combative in his online statements about jazz as Wynton Marsalis was in his early years, Payton seemed oddly in the shadows in this setting, with just a few spectacular outbursts in the course of 90 minutes. He knows the heritage himself, being one of a long line of stellar New Orleans trumpeters. A few phrases in his solos even had the sheen and some of the ornamental tricks of the master, including such signature features as a straight-toned held note that adds a shimmering vibrato at the end.

The rhythm section that Dr. John travels with benefited immensely from the contributions of drummer Herlin Riley.  If you don't have the right underlying patterns for a New Orleans show, you don't have much, and Riley supplied both freshness and authenticity to a zestful mixed bag of a performance.