Album review: DR. JOHN – Anutha Zone/Duke Elegant (reissue)

DR. JOHN – Anutha Zone - Duke Elegant (reissue)

Edsel [Release Date: 16.02.15]

Anutha Zone doesn’t break any new ground, but is a celebration of all that is good about Dr. John. Cut in 1998, it’s an album full of timeless music with deeply embedded grooves and nuanced vocals stretched over New Orleans rhythms.

It’s also another Dr. John album anchored by his band The Lower 911 and filled with sundry guests and musical diversity that showcases his unique style.

Recorded on both sides of the Atlantic – New York and London – some of the Abbey Road sessions providing the highlights, as on the percussive accents and crisp rhythm track of ‘Ki Ya Gris Gris’ which could easily be Sly & Robbie, as Dr. John, emotes in a close to the mic groan and phrases beautifully over Hugh McCracken’s slide guitar.

The track levers us into an album with gris gris grit and voodoo pretensions. The percussive punch is provided by Sammy Figueroa on congas and percussion who is also an essential part of the dreamy ‘I Like Ki Yoka’ and the up tempo funk of ‘Soulful Warrior’, which features some gloriously, exaggerated diction from the good Doctor.

You have to play ‘Anutha Zone’ several times before the grooves sink into your subconscious. Overseen by English producer John Leckie, it’s is the triumph of Dr John’s own performance and enduring style over the geography and many different musicians of its making.

The production never wavers in its focus, pushing Dr. John to the centre of things to give the album a coherent thread.

Listen for example, to ‘John Gris’. Cut at Abbey road it’s an object lesson in smouldering dynamics with locked in rhythms and slide and horns, while ‘Hello God’ features an irreverent conversation with God. It’s top heavy with bv’s from the London Community Gospel Choir and is almost too cluttered, but does ultimately resolve itself before the fade out.

‘Party Hellfire’ draws you into another pulsating groove with a top vocal line from Carleen Anderson and guitars from Matt Deighton and Paul Weller on another Abbey Road recording.

The cover of John Martyn’s ‘I Don’t Wanna Know’ is an inspired choice as Mac drags his voice over a lovely melody, smoothed out by Jools Holland’s Hammond and featuring Paul Weller again on bv’s and guitar.

Mac’s strident piano lines cut through the title track as the horn section pumps away in the background, while ‘The Olive Tree’ works hard to beguile us with its eastern feel.

The catchy ‘Why Come’ goes back to his funky roots with some humorous lyrics and he’s joined on the closing ‘Sweet Home New Orleans’ by Clive Deamer from Portishead and Primal Scream’s keyboard player Martin Duffy on a song that  much like the album as a whole, cogently restates his musical antecedents.  ****

Duke Elegant is the sort of album you make when you’re scouting around for material. Happily, Dr John brings his own style and presence to bear on some classic material and three little known numbers.

The opening ‘On the Wrong Side of The Railroad Tracks’ sets a relaxed standard, as Mac’s resonant piano and confident phrasing also brings gravitas and feel.

He’s in his element on the funky ‘I’m Gonna Go Fishin’ another obscure song that he makes his own and he adds a Caribbean flavour to the percussive groove of ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing’).

His throaty vocals perfectly give the song its lived-in feel, and there’s a refreshing Ronnie Cuber’s sax line on the relaxed intro of ‘Perdido’ which imperceptibly changes pace half way through with a percolating bass line and cool organ.

You can imagine several jazz die-hards who will blanch at the radically different arrangements here, but there’s really no need, as Dr. John glues everything together with his stellar piano playing, his croaked rasp and occasional Hammond B3 outings which trace the melody line.

He’s a deep balladeer on the late night slow blues of ‘Solitude’, interweaving a gentle evocative vocal with intricate piano lines, while both ‘Satin Doll’ and the B3-led ‘Caravan’ makes great use of the space and cool dynamics.

Mac’s  gently voiced piano on ‘Satin Doll’ gently nestles on the crispest of rhythm tracks and an angular guitar solo from Bobby Broom and he’s similarly in laid back mode on ‘Mood Indigo’, bringing a contemporary New Orleans feel with a punchy rhythm track, topped by expansive piano lines.

He’s at his best on the slow blues of ‘Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me’, which he colours with mellifluous note clusters and rolling piano to match a perfect vocal.

He switches to Hammond for the instrumental ‘Thing’s Ain’t What They Used To Be’ which sounds just a tad lightweight, but is neatly juxtaposed with the hard bass edged funk of ‘Caravan ’ and the New Orleans flavoured ‘Flaming Sword’.

The Doc meets the Duke on his own terms, that is to say his arrangements never stray too far from a hypnotic rhythm track, a funky bass line and his own piano style.

Dr. John’s ‘Duke Elegant’ makes a credible case for the all pervasive nature of New Orleansmusic, bringing additional light and shade and new ideas to the great Ellington song book.  ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

Pete Feenstra presents his Rock & Blues Show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio every Tuesday at 19:00 GMT, and “The Pete Feenstra Feature” on Sundays at 19:00

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