Gramafono Sound – 2015
11 tracks; 46 minutes
This CD is a bit of an oddity, having been initially released in 2015 and now being promoted again. It must have been recorded even earlier as producer Wardell Quezergue passed away in 2011. It would therefore seem that the tracks we hear may have been recorded around that time but what really matters is whether what we have here is of merit – and it certainly is!
The sessions were intended as a means of recording a series of previously unreleased Dr John songs and to spotlight his piano playing in particular, though he is only on two tracks here. [Apparently there are other recordings in the can to be released in the future.] Wardell wanted to produce these sessions and brought in Will to sing as they had worked together successfully on Will’s earlier Happy CD.
Recorded in New Orleans, the album includes background vocals from The Womack Brothers (aka The Valentinos), superb horn playing from Mic Gillette, Johnny Bamont and Don Pender and guest appearances by Leo Nocentelli (The Meters, guitar on two tracks), Jimmy Haslip (The Yellowjackets, bass on two tracks) and Bettye Lavette (duet vocals on one track). The core band is Todd Duke on guitar, Thaddeus Richard (TREME) on keys, Brian Quezergue (Wild Magnolias) on bass and the late Bernard ‘Bunchy’ Johnson or Doug Belote (Tab Benoit) on drums. Producer and arranger Wardell Quezergue’s introductory comments have been left in as he counts in some of the numbers, a suitable reminder of the essential contribution he made to these recordings.
The CD opens with the title track, one of two Dr John compositions and Mac plays piano as well as making some rap-like vocal interjections. With a full band arrangement over a slinky NO bass line this is a splendid opener and “When The Battle Is Over” is also excellent, a song that many will recall from Delaney & Bonnie’s version. Those two songs are separated by Will’s ballad “Why Do We Get Blue”, Will’s vocal rising from a deep baritone to deliver the poignant lyrics superbly. Will’s duet with Bettye Lavette turns Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” into a soulful ballad, the string arrangement and the vocalists’ performance bringing out the emotional quality of Dylan’s lyrics. Things get funkier on the cover of Ike Turner’s “I’m Blue” and the Womacks’ vocal contribution stands out.
Will’s “This California Sun” is a gorgeous ballad and, in this reviewer’s opinion, Will’s finest hour on vocals as he puts some real emotion into the words: “When I told her ‘I have to go now’ she didn’t try to change my mind. She said, ‘if the place you’re living won’t let you grow now, you’ve got to leave that place behind’”. Leo Nocentelli’s guitar adds drama to the brooding original “I Can Do Bad By Myself” before Will tackles a song once recorded by the New Orleans ‘Tan Canary’, Johnny Adams. “Don’t Go To Strangers” is in fact a classic song whose string-heavy arrangement would suit someone like Tony Bennett; Will does a good job but it is the track that is furthest removed from the soul feel of most of the record though Jimmy Haslip’s wonderful bass solo is well worth hearing.
“Treadin’ Water”, on the other hand, is great soul music, as much Memphis as New Orleans, with the horns pushing things along and a short tenor solo to savour. Will changes things up with “Tear It Up” a 1961 rockabilly hit for Johnny Burnette, here transformed into a funky number with more great horn work. “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” makes an ideal close to the album; the 1970 gospel song from writer Bill Moss and The Celestials set against another horn-heavy arrangement with the Womacks in full flow behind Will’s gravelly tone.
Of course this is not a blues album per se and is better described as a soul release but it has an awful lot to commend it. Those of us who love soulful music and great horn charts will enjoy this one and it stands as a fine tribute to several fine musicians who are no longer with us.