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Two American Heroes


by Josef Woodard

Dr.-John-Credit-A.-Houlgrav.jpgTALE OF TWO ICONS: This week, by cosmic coincidence, the Lobero Theatre hosts two of America’s most important musical heroes, each from divergent corners of our cultural pageant. On Friday, Dr. John returns to the venue he turned into a saucy party zone two years ago. Next Wednesday, veteran jazz piano man Dave Brubeck makes one of his regular stops at the Lobero. Both shows qualify as must-hear items on the cultural calendar.

Though vastly different, both musicians’ root systems trace back to New Orleans, birthplace of jazz and many another important American musical genres. His wandering creative spirit has taken him to all sides of mainstream jazz, but Brubeck could be considered a jazz musician who helped expand awareness of his idiom. In the ’50s, with his breakaway signature tune “Take Five,” Brubeck made jazz safe for sweater-donning collegiate types and graced the cover of Time.

Throughout the decades, Brubeck has remained creatively active and restless, composing “classical” work alongside jazz material, which usually veers off to the left-end of traditional (he still loves odd meters, for instance). This September at the Monterey Jazz Festival, Brubeck unveils another new work, “Cannery Row Suite,” commissioned by the festival. All this comes from a musician, now 85, who could reasonably be coasting in his golden years. Santa Barbarans also have a civic connection to the Brubeck name, in that Dave’s late brother Henry taught music in the schools here for many years.

Meanwhile, Dr. John — a k a Mac Rebennack — is another self-made musical icon. Musically active as a session player since the ’50s, the whiskey-voiced “voodoo” music specialist has forged his unique public identity since the ’70s. In his versatile and hybrid musical sound, he mixes N’Orleans-styled R&B and historical styles associated with Crescent City pianists like Professor Longhair and James Booker, as well as other Cajun turns and doses of jazz and blues.

He likes to keep us guessing, so it was both a surprise and business as usual when he turned his attentions to songs of Johnny Mercer on the fine new album Mercernary (Blue Note). Of course, Mercer favorites such as “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Moon River,” “That Old Black Magic,” and even “I’m an Old Cowhand,” have been thoroughly personalized, Dr. John-ified.

Dr. John has naturally been in focus during the past year, connected to the still-ongoing tragic aftermath of Katrina’s wrath. But regardless of that unfortunate, incidental spotlight, he’s been on a career high in the last few years. At 65, thoughts of retirement appear to have been retired.

L.A. LOGBOOK: Rumor has it that jazz is having trouble connecting with an audience, further marginalized by America’s pop-blindsided tastes. How, then, do we account for the healthy jazz audience which has allowed Santa Barbara to become a regular stopover for some of music’s greatest artists each season?

And how do we account for the fact that last Wednesday at the Hollywood Bowl nearly 10,000 bodies filed into the sprawling venue for this season’s token “real jazz” show of Joshua Redman, Christian McBride, and Herbie Hancock? Of course, that Bowl’s relationship with jazz is checkered, thanks to the annual Playboy Festival, which routinely shoots itself in both feet by trying to mix actual jazz content with dreaded “smooth jazz” piffle. (The JVC Festival stop, later this month, is shamelessly smooth in nature.) But last week, Hollywood shined as saxophonist Redman worked out artfully with his hot, chordless trio. McBride (the L.A. Philharmonic’s new creative chair of jazz, formerly held by Dianne Reeves) organically grafted swing, funk, and fusion with his band. And Hancock’s newest band — featuring sparkling Benin-born guitarist Lionel Lueke — explored material from the ’60s through the ’00s, never leaving behind a prominent “real jazz” muse. At the risk of glittery generalizing, the expansive sounds of great jazz and classical music somehow resonate more strongly in the Bowl’s outdoor ambience than the prefab stuff of pop. (Got e? fringebeat@aol.com.)



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