One New Orleans music great honors another in “Ske-Dat-De-Dat … The Spirit of Satch.”
To be released Tuesday, the album, Dr. John’s tribute to Louis Armstrong, features 13 songs picked from the vastly influential repertoire of the beloved entertainer and jazz giant.
A caravan of guest stars, many of them from New Orleans, contributed to the project. “Spirit of Satch” guests include Bonnie Raitt, Shemekia Copeland, Ledisi, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and, in tune with Armstong’s trumpeting brilliance, trumpeters Nicholas Payton, Terence Blanchard, James Andrews, Wendell Brunious and Arturo Sandoval.
“Spirit of Satch” was co-produced by Dr. John, aka Mac Rebennack, and his trombonist and musical directress, Sarah Morrow.
The inspiration for the album came to him in a dream that contained a visitation from Armstrong himself, Rebennack said. Pops graciously gave the singer-keyboardist creative carte blanche.
“That’s what Louis came to me in a dream and said to do,” Rebennack said. “Hey, I never thought that Louis would come to me in a dream. He was a great cat, and that is a true blessing.”
Growing up in New Orleans in the 1940s and ’50s, Rebennack certainly was aware of the world-famous Armstrong, the New Orleans-born musician who helped set the foundations for jazz and American popular music.
“When my father used to sell records back on Gentilly Road, I used to hear a lot of Louis’ records and a lot of Miles Davis’ records,” Rebennack remembered.
Rebennack met Armstrong in 1966 or 1967, before Rebennack adopted the moniker he’s used since the 1968 release of “Gris-Gris,” his debut as Dr. John the Night Tripper.
“Louis was a laid back, very New Orleans type of cat,” he said. “Everything he said had something to do with New Orleans. He knew I was from there, so that opened a whole can of maneuvers.”
Armstrong’s preeminence in the world’s music is a given today, but during his lifetime, New Orleans, that city so rich in music, periodically held others in higher esteem.
“There was times when Louis wasn’t as highly regarded as maybe a Smiley Lewis was,” Rebennack said. “Smiley was always the guy that was popular in New Orleans but wasn’t popular elsewhere. I thought the world of him.”
Lewis, a singer-guitarist with a huge voice, was a favorite of Fats Domino’s producer, Dave Bartholomew. He made such classic 1950s New Orleans recordings as “I Hear You Knocking,” “Blue Monday” and “One Night,” which Elvis Presley re-recorded as “One Night With You.”
Rebennack, a 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and six-time Grammy winner, was an impressionable youngster when he attended one of Lewis’ recording sessions at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Recording Studio on North Rampart Street.
“That was a beautiful session,” he remembered. “And I just happened to be there with my father. I think it all had some triggerment towards me doing what I did later. I remember Dave Bartholomew leaning over and playing the last chord with the band. Just to fatten the chord up. I thought, ‘Wow, man. This guy’s a great record producer.’ Seeing that was special to me.”
Some 60 years later, “Ske-Dat-De-Dat … The Spirit of Satch” is special to Rebennack, too.
“I’m really happy with Sarah Morrow’s charts and the chart Brian Quezergue did that’s on the record,” he said of the album’s elaborate horn arrangements. “I have a lot of my friends on the record, different cats doing different things that was really hip. That’s a good thing.”
The rhythm section being so foundational for music from New Orleans, Rebennack recruited Herlin Riley to play drums for most of the songs.
“I got Herlin to pull bass players he would like,” Rebennack said. “I always knew that drummers, they got to feel good with what they’re doing.”
Rebennack normally sings lead for his albums’ songs but he spread the vocals around in “Spirit of Satch.”
Rhythm-and-blues star Anthony Hamilton sings a mystical “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” Rebennack and Raitt roll through a relaxed and swinging duet of “I’ve Got the World on a String.”
R&B singer Ledisi, a New Orleans native who moved to Oakland, California, at 9, goes emotively gospel for “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” a beautifully sung, show-stopping track featuring the McCrary Sisters.
“No matter where they’re at, they still got a little touch of New Orleans in them,” Rebennack said.
Blues singer Copeland and Rebennack (producer of her 2002 album, “Talking to Strangers”) have great rapport and much fun in “Sweet Hunk O’Trash.” Although Rebennack sings lead for the Latin-seasoned “When You’re Smiling (The Whole World Smiles with You),” he saves his entrance for late in song, effectively making the song a showcase for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
“I had some great ones to bring in,” Rebennack said of his guests. “I feel touched that they all did so slamming on their tracks.”