New Band of the Month: June – Reflection

For the sixth month of the New Band feature, I selected New Orleans jazz maestro,  Dr. John (read my initial thoughts here).

Did his music get me ready for Nahleans?

I’ve always found jazz* music the hardest to get into, largely because it eschews the easy entry points that most pop music has.  It’s not music designed for the easy hook or the pulsing rhythm that gets stuck in your head for days.  At the same time, the improvisational nature of the style means that it rarely rewards repeat listeners in the particular way that intricately orchestrated music like classical or even (for personal reference) Radiohead might.  That is not to say that jazz can’t be catchy or, conversely, complex, only that when it does either it does it in a very unique way that requires an ear prepared to meet the music on its own terms.

I write all of that as a way of expressing how I’ve come to the music of Dr. John this month.  I’ve listened to my share of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and while I’ve appreciated the work, I can’t say I’ve ever found myself particularly drawn in.  When I decided to pick Dr. John’s music for this month, I did it not only as a way of exploring the musical tradition of my upcoming city, but also in order to revisit jazz anew, through an artist to whom I was relatively unexposed.

After a month, I can’t say that it has made me a jazz convert (I’ll probably always be someone who appreciates the artistry academically more than aesthetically), but I can say that the music of Dr. John has a wild exuberance that is impossible to deny.  Listening to his music makes me want to sit in a tiny, smoke-filled bar with a bottle of whiskey and the band ten feet away.  Live jazz certainly appeals to me more than the recorded form, and listening to a varied sample of Dr. John’s library shows why: As spirited and fascinating as the album tracks are, jazz music will always be about the excitement of exploration and instantaneous inspiration.

Live jazz is where it’s at.

Even so, Dr. John creates jazz that lives and breathes.  It can be darkly beautiful like a Tom Waits song while as unconventional and confounding as the freewheeling Krautrock of Can.  As a musical form, it doesn’t resonant with me in the same way my favorite artists do, but as artistic expression, it tickles my fascination like the best abstract artists so often do.

Will I Buy An Album?  I might.  I’m not sure if any one album is considered the ‘definitive’ Dr. John experience, but I think if I was going to own one album by him I would select his debut, “Gris-Gris.”  It’s thoroughly listenable from beginning to end and unlike a lot of jazz albums (and I speak only for myself here), I feel like each song stands on its own as an individual piece, fitting into the whole of the album without blending into one long string of indistinguishable rhythms.  Plus, I feel like it would be an epic listening experience while walking the streets of New Orleans.

Favorite Song:  Individually, a lot of Dr. John’s songs are a blast, especially the ones that laud his hometown, like the celebratory “Goin’ Back to New Orleans.”  But, if I was going to pick one stand out track for me, it would probably have to be the Gris-Gris closer, “I Walk On Guilded Splinters,” a cool, eerie piece of voodoo that just entrances.  I imagine this soundtracking a long, solitary walk home through the streets of New Orleans at 4 in the morning.  Spooky.

*The music of Dr. John is clearly so much more than traditional jazz, and I don’t wish to be reductive; but jazz is the skeleton upon which most of his music seems to be built, so I’m using it as a frame of reference.

Next Month: Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on

New Band of the Month: June – Dr. John

Every month this year, I’m dedicating myself to getting into a new band.  By ‘new band’, what I really mean is an old band who I’ve known of for awhile but have for one reason or another never checked out.  Maybe they were a genre I wasn’t into, maybe they were the favorite band of someone I didn’t like, maybe I was just lazy.  Whatever reason, I’m going to spend the month trying to get into them.

If, at the end of the month, I find myself enjoying the music I’ll buy an album.  And if not, I’ll save my money for something else.

My New Band for June is:

Dr. John

From the wiki page

Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack, Jr. (born November 21, 1940), better known by the stage name Dr. John (also Dr. John Creaux, or Dr. John the Night Tripper), is an American singer-songwriter, pianist and guitarist, whose music combines blues, pop, jazz as well as zydeco, boogie woogie and rock and roll.

My personal history with Dr. John:

Alright, so, right off the bat: No, Dr. John isn’t technically a ‘band’.  Now that’s been addressed, moving on.

My exposure to Dr. John has predominantly come in two forms: Seeing his name on CDs in the New Orleans/Zydeco section of the Barnes & Noble where I managed, and hearing his music in the first season of the HBO series, Treme (I’m still waiting for the second season to arrive from Netflix). 

I am 3 months out from my move to New Orleans, and now seems as appropriate a time as any to delve into one of the proud sons of the Big Easy.  While I have never been a huge jazz listener (more an appreciator of the form than a fan), I am fascinated by the music history of the city especially as, more than any other city, the roots of the native musicians seems to be absolutely essential to their music (even the seemingly generic pop rock band Better Than Ezra wears its New Orleans pride on its sleeve).

I’m not ignorant of the style or Dr. John’s music.  This is less about discovering new music this month (though it is still about that) and more about seeing how immersing myself in a culture and sound that is fundamental to New Orleans.  And as I look for an apartment and opportunities in the city ahead, I’m excited about getting an early taste.

I would welcome the direction and input of any Dr. John aficionados.  Are there one or two essential albums I have to hear?  Is there some specific career highlight where I should start, or can I jump in pretty much anywhere?  Please suggest songs/albums that I must listen to in the comments.  And if you’re like me and have never given him a real chance before, get yourself some New Orleans this month.