If ever a musician was a product of their environment, then it was surely New Orleans native Dr. John (born Malcolm John Rebennack Jr). An artist who grew up amidst soul, funk, R&B, jazz and blues, Dr. John absorbed his surroundings, swirled them up, and then presented them as something refreshingly original. It seems that the Montreux Jazz Festival (the home of ground-breaking artists since 1967) was the perfect stage for the eclectic Dr. John, and The Montreux Years compiles 14 choice songs from 7 different performances to create the ultimate Dr. John live experience.
Festival founder Claude Nobbs had the great foresight to document many of the artists who played Montreux, and his vast archives have been opened for albums from the likes of Muddy Waters, Marianne Faithfull and John McLaughlin . Now it’s the turn of the silky-smooth Dr. John, and for a musician known for a big band sound, things get off to a more nuanced (but no less lively) start with four tracks from a 1986 set. Featuring just John and a piano, ‘Professor Longhair Boogie’ is an instrumental to welcome us to Dr. John’s weird and wonderful world. He’s all over the keys like a rash, with a dexterity that’s dizzying to leave the listener in a kind of shocked awe. From boogie to the blues is not such a great leap for Dr. John and he immediately leads us to the swamps for a fine slab of Mississippi Delta blues in ‘You Ain’t Such A Much’. There’s been a touch of voodoo sprinkled on proceedings and its dark delights flow as if a river of liquid silk towards an unknown destination (but my guess is New Orleans).
The decision to begin the album with 4 parred back performances makes perfect sense when we hit track number 5, ‘Accentuate The Positive’. Now accompanied by a full band, it explodes in a cornucopia of sound, and subsequently, this old Arlen/Mercer standard is given a new lease of life. When covering a song a band should indelibly stamp it with their own personality, there’s no point in producing a mere facsimile (we have the original for that) and Dr. John certainly claims ownership. After years of listening to Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition, this version makes me re-evaluate everything I thought I knew about the song (as all good music should). Accompanied by a varied cast of musicians, The Montreux Years turns into a carnival with golden yellows, vivid greens and burnt reds bursting from the speakers. Close your eyes and you can almost see feathered ladies and top hatted gents dancing in the streets on a hot Louisiana night.
What stitches this album together is an inventiveness that runs throughout. Take a cover version of Earl King’s ‘Big Chief’ for example. The beat seems to run counter to the song, yet somehow it works and swings like a cut from Bitches Brew (so perhaps it was no coincidence that it was recorded in the Miles Davis Hall). Since Dr. John has passed away the world has been a darker place, but thankfully there’s The Montreux Years to brighten things up.
- The Montreux Years is released via BMG on 2nd June 2023 (available here).
Vinyl Track List:
- Professor Longhair Boogie *
- You Ain’t Such A Much *
- Sick And Tired *
- Stack-A-Lee *
- Accentuate The Positive **
- Right Place, Wrong Time ***
- Rain **
- Going Back To New Orleans ****
- Makin’ Whoopee *****
- Big Chief ******
- In A Sentimental Mood/Mississippi Mud/Happy Hard Times (Medley) *******
- Love For Sale **
- Let The Good Times Roll *****
- Good Night Irene *
CD Track List:
As vinyl, tracks 1 through 14
* Live At Casino Montreux, 1986
** Live At Auditorium Stravinski, 2007
*** Live At Auditorium Stravinski, 2004
**** Live At Auditorium Stravinski, 1993
***** Live At Auditorium Stravinski, 1995
****** Live At Miles Davis Hall, 2011
******* Live At Miles Davis Hall, 2012