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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