I first interviewed Dr. John (aka Mac Rebennack) about "Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch" a year ago when he described the album in progress as being inspired by a dream in which Louis Armstrong told him: "Do my music your way." The album debuts today, and it's earning critical acclaim already, giving Louis Armstrong a strong debut as an A&R apparition.
Ske-Dat-De-Dat, or #SkeDatDeDat on Twitter, starts with the energy blast of Dr. John and The Blind Boys of Alabama who the New York Times says "take to this material stirringly." In another standout collaboration, "World on a String" flows easily with Bonnie Raitt and Dr. John's banter:
Dr. John "I got the world on my string but I'm strung out on you child ... Don't know what to do with it..."
Bonnie: "Come on over here and I'll show you a couple things"
Dr. John "Alriiiiight."
My favorite track is "That's My Home," maybe because of my post Katrina over-nesting syndrome. What home must have meant to Louis Armstrong, who lived much of his life on the road as does Dr. John, comes across in every line of the song. The Times review describes: "the easygoing lilt of "That's My Home," on which Dr. John shows what he learned from Armstrong about phrasing."
The album has been lauded for the performance of its trumpet all-stars including Arturo Sandoval, Nicholas Payton, Terence Blanchard and James Andrews. It also has a roster of women who Armstrong, whose legendary duets included Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, would have felt at home among. There's Raitt, Shemekia Copeland, Ledisi, the McCrary Sisters and Telmary, and then there's Sarah Morrow who brought the dream team to life with her powerhouse producing and arrangements. Sarah is musical director and trombonist for Dr. John and The Nite Trippers, and Dr. John described to Marc Meyers of the Wall Street Journal how hearing her work "made me realize she would be slammin' as my band directress and perfect to arrange the Louis album."
"Being responsible for one iconic musician's tribute to another iconic musician is heavy," Sarah said of the process. "There was no room for my ego as a producer or writer, it was about helping this legendary musician realize his own vision and then doing the immense followthrough so his vision became a reality. All the while doing justice to another historical musical and cultural icon. That's like a double legacy: It was Louis Armstrong's orders: 'Do my music your way,' and Dr. John's calling. That's deep no matter how you look at it. I'm incredibly honored Dr. John chose me to see it through."
Dr. John returns the sentiment: "When I first discovered Sarah, and even before she was my music director, I knew she had a whole lot to offer the world. And I could feel her spirit in every way. And I knew that the best way I could bring this project to life would be to have her produce and arrange it. Her arrangements and production values are visionary, so much so that she pulled this record together despite having to play on it, write the charts and produce. I knew she could help me make this record true, different and fresh."
Their collaboration involved Sarah asking "hundreds of questions, and he told me all kinds of stories. Once I had a thorough understanding of Mac's heart and spirit as he relates to Louis Armstrong, only then could I do my part." They worked on the project both on and off the road. "After traveling all day and performing in the evening I would stay up all night writing charts, and the next day I would play for him what I did, ask any questions I had. It was important to me that I had Dr. John's enthusiastic approval along the way because this record had to be a true extension of his musical voice."
The guests were chosen and "matched them with the song we thought they would sound hippest on," Dr. John said. "In some cases, like with Bonnie or Anthony (Hamilton), we chose the songs with them and then Sarah arranged them to fit both our styles."
Sarah says the defining song to her is "What a Wonderful World." "This is what Dr. John first showed me when we began talking about the project. He had re-harmonized the song in his own way. We made a few tweaks here and there and took it a step further. This showed me that he was willing to take chances and had no fears in taking the songs in new directions. This set the tone for the rest of the arrangements. Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch was Dr. John's vision, from one legend to another, and it was my job to make sure we captured the essence of this vision. I think in the end we made Louis proud."
Dr. John links the project back to New Orleans, where it all started: "As a kid, I loved certain records by Louis whether it was "Gutbucket Blues," "Sweet Hunk of Trash," any of those records that Louis cut was slammin'." "Ske-Dat-De-Dat" has joined that pantheon.
Follow Karen Dalton-Beninato on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kbeninato