James Booker – Classified
12 Tracks – 39 minutes
One of the greatest players, if not the greatest, in the fabled New Orleans piano tradition, James Booker was often referred to as “The Piano Prince Of New Orleans” and the “Bayou Maharajah”. His astonishing skills on the keyboard were amazing to behold, at least when his personal demons were kept at bay. Hit by a speeding ambulance at ten years old, Booker suffered a broken leg in eight places. As a way to ease the pain, he was treated with morphine, the start of many of his personal issues.
His recorded legacy is filled with a variety of live shows, with New Orleans Piano Wizard: Live! on Rounder Records being one of the best, while others are bootleg recordings of varying degrees of quality. As far as studio recordings, Booker only had two releases. One of them, Classified, originally done for Rounder, has been reissued by Craft Recordings, complete with the original cover and liner notes by noted New Orleans music writer Bunny Matthews that provide some insight into Booker’s world.
The disc is comprised of seven tunes with Booker alone at the piano. The other five tracks find him getting accompaniment from three veteran NO musicians including Alvin “Red” Tyler on tenor saxophone, James Singleton on bass, and Johnny Vidacovich on drums. Tyler was one of the city’s finest sax players while the other two were the rhythm section for Astral Project, a cutting edge New Orleans jazz group. The majority of the material was recorded in a four hour session, after several days of waiting for Booker to be in the mood to play.
The opening track, “All Around The World,” is a tune that will be familiar to blues fans. Booker’s energetic vocal gets things started, gliding along over the powerful rhythm conjured up by his left hand. Roger Miller’s hit, “King Of The Road,” was a number that Booker played often, but never the same way. After a delicate intro segment, Booker digs in, weaving intricate keyboard patterns that offer a nice contrast to his quirky singing.
One of the exceptional highlights occurs on “Professor Longhair Medley: Bald Head/Tipitina,” as Booker distills the essence of Longhair’s piano style into a homage that honors the legacy even as Booker runs through creative interpretations of the familiar themes. On “Madame X,” Booker mixes classical and jazz elements into a beautiful, introspective instrumental.
He rises to the occasion again on the original title song, taking listeners through a series of rhythm and tempo changes without losing the groove, again playing with stunning dexterity and imagination. He serves up a spirited run-through of “Hound Dog,” his right hand flying over the keyboard while his left hand provides the firm rhythmic anchor. The closing track, “Three Keys,” flows along at a sprightly pace, offering plenty of imaginative playing in a variety of keys.
While the presence of the band takes some of the spotlight from Booker, he still makes the most of his moments. During Tyler’s solo on a slow-drag take of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” the piano player shouts out encouragement, then finishes the song with an emphatic vocal turn. “Angel Eyes” is Booker at his most sublime, right hand spinning taut, intricate lines over his other hand’s stately pace.
Taking a tune from the Fats Domino songbook, “One For The Highway” finds the keyboard master mining the point where country meets New Orleans R&B, complete with a too brief solo from Tyler.
“If You’re Lonely” has a hint of gospel, which may have inspired one of Booker’s best vocal performances. For many listeners, the song “Baby Face” might be considered a throw-away novelty number. Booker makes it spring to life, turning the simple melody inside out with another sequence of astonishing improvisation. Tyler finally gets a chance to blow his horn, which inspires another round of keyboard magic from Booker.
If you have never had the distinct pleasure of listening to James Booker, this record is a fine place to start. Recorded near the end of his life, Booker was focused and in control. There has never been anyone like him. But keep in mind that once you start listening to this piano genius, you will undoubtedly want to hear more. This one comes highly recommended, with great sound on the LP!