Review:  Dr John - Mercernary

I've been listening to this new 2006  album of Dr John singing the Johnny Mercer songbook off and on for a couple of months, and I'm still not quite sure what to make of it.  I suppose that might be considered praise right there.  Still, I have to say I'm a little disappointed. 

That might just be that I'm expecting too much.  I'm a pretty big fan of Dr John, and obviously Johnny Mercer was one of the most prestigious American composers ever.  So maybe I was expecting magic, and merely got a good album.  It's perfectly well done, but some of this seems more like a rote exercise than any profound expression of the soul of Mac Rebennack, especially the first song.

He starts off with "Blues in the Night."  On the one hand, it's a perfectly good swingin' New Orleans arrangement, decked out properly with horns and such.  He's in great voice, and locks in a good rockin' groove.  Yet it just loses the basic emotional point.  When Sinatra or even the co-author Harold Arlen sang it, the song communicates a great dark night of the heartbroken soul.  Dr John makes a good jam.  A young person not previously familiar with the song might think this is the berries, but I'm missing the real soul of the song.

Likewise, "Moon River" just ain't cuttin' it.  I never particularly cared for this sloppy sentimental tune Mercer wrote with Henry Mancini for Breakfast at Tiffany's.  I feel a little sheepish saying it, but I'd rather hear Andy Williams sing this than Dr John.  He not only loses connection with the feeling, but he's manhandling the melody for his swing arrangement enough to do damage.

On the other hand, Dr John's professional swing works better with some of the songs that were more swingin' pop songs than inner statements to start with.  "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby" - the second track here - works much better.  It was just meant for New Orleans swing apparently, and even the bit of goosing the vocal melody adds to the uniqueness of the performance rather than detracting from the actual song.  

"Personality" plays out similarly.  I was initially somewhat ambivalent, on grounds that I wasn't entirely sold on the tweaking of the melody as I remembered it.  But it does work, and he benefits from the depth of his technical skills as an arranger.  Particularly, the understated trumpet commentary really adds another level. This might be the best song to hunt down if you want to sample the album.

"Hit the Road to Dreamland" probably isn't the very best song Arlen and Mercer ever wrote, but Dr John certainly gets the full good out of it.  I didn't remember the song, though I found a Harold Arlen recording in my library.  The suns-comin-up-I-gotta-go sentiment is perfect for Dr John, and he definitely did a lot more with it than the author.  I'll consider this the definitive performance of the song.

At least a couple of these songs seem like weak choices.  He could have gotten stuff with much more flava than some of these.  I would have loved to seen him take a swing at "Jubilation T Cornpone," for example, which could go really good with his New Orleans palate, rather than this instrumental version of "Tangerine."  It's just a bland tune from the get-go.  It sounds to me like intermission music to play over the PA while people are taking their bathroom breaks.  "I'm an Old Cowhand" strikes me similarly as pointless. Why he would pick these songs to sing over "If I Had My Druthers" or "Too Marvelous for Words" escapes me.

"That Old Black Magic" turns out surprisingly weak here. He comes up with an extra little piano lick to build his arrangement on, but it's not that interesting.  The song was surely built to swing, so his particular goosing of the vocal melody seems unnecessarily abusive and not especially inspired.  I'd think of the song as being particularly a "jazz" standard.  I'd certainly ten times rather hear the Louis Armstrong recording, though.  

He does, however, end strong with "Save the Bones for Henry Jones."  This was not a Mercer composition at all, but is best known for a recording by Johnny Mercer and Nat King Cole.  In any case, this  r&b standard is literally meat and potatoes, which ribs Dr John is glad to pick clean for himself, since after all, "Henry don't eat no meat."

As I finish up my consideration, I'm not surprised to find myself liking it more.  Picking at them bones does turn up some good meat, and pure professionalism and technical skill puts most of this over.  The closer you listen, the more those little details add up to a very listenable record, even if you might have hoped for a little more.

Holla Back!

Dr John

Music Sustains the Soul

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