One New Orleans music great honors another in “Ske-Dat-De-Dat … The Spirit of Satch.”
To be released Tuesday, Aug. 19, the Dr. John album is a tribute to Louis Armstrong featuring 13 songs 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.
Co-produced by Dr. John, aka Mac Rebennack, and his trombonist and musical directress, Sarah Morrow, “Spirit of Satch” follows two “Props to Pops” concerts, on-stage tributes performed at New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2012 and the Hollywood Bowl in 2013.
Dr. John and the Nite Trippers’ first hometown show following the release of “Ske-Dat-De-Dat … The Spirit of Satch” is scheduled for Sept. 20 at the Joy Theater.
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 a few weeks ago. “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. “My daddy used to sell bebop records, Afro-Cuban records and all of the stuff that was popular. The traditional jazz was what Louis Armstrong was under then. He was still making great records back in the ’40s.”
Rebennack met Armstrong in 1966 or 1967, shortly after he signed with manager and booking agent Joe Glaser. A giant in the music business, Glaser had an epic list of clients, including Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Barbra Streisand and B.B. King. The meeting took place 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.”
Rebennack chuckled, remembering a conversation with Armstrong that mentioned Ralph Schultz’s Fresh Hardware Store, a Bucktown business that provided an amazing array of services.
“Ralph Schultz could marry you,” he said. “All the things that Ralph could do back then, that was way off the hook. And I knew that, but to hear Louis Armstrong say that was cracking me up.”
“Ske-Dat-De-Dat … The Spirit of Satch” is special to Rebennack.
“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.”
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. That was spiritually hip. I came up in Herlin’s grandpa’s church. The Guiding Light Spiritual Church in New Orleans is a very hip thing to come out of.”
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 Bonnie 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 Shemekia 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.”