You can be forgiven, at this juncture in the selling and concept-driven re-selling of New Orleans culture, if you approach Dr. John’s latest survey of homegrown songs and styles with tempered expectations. N’Awlinz: Dis, Dat Or D’Udda, with which he follows fellow geezers Van Morrison and Al Green in joining young superstar Norah Jones on the Blue Note jazz label’s pop-bolstered lineup, is top-heavy with the usual guest contributors: B.B. King, Willie Nelson and Randy Newman among the genre-crossers (Ray Charles must have been busy), plus the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Mardis Gras Indians, drummer Earl Palmer and orchestrator Wardell Quezergue among those providing local flavor. Will the Night Tripper ever get to skip the standards, hunker down inside his funky eccentric self again and come up with some fresh Gris Gris?
Maybe yes and maybe no, but as it turns out, there’s plenty of first-rate Doctor here, beginning with, of all things, “When The Saints Go Marching In”. You may think you never want to hear the hoary Dixieland anthem again, but with Dr. John and the great Mavis Staples passing the vocal line back and forth with seamless ease and a deep-toned gospel chorus providing gravitas, this funereally streaked version has rejuvenatory power.
Another warhorse, “Dear Old Southland”, is given an eloquent piano-and-trumpet treatment by Dr. John and Nicholas Payton. Later, “St. James Infirmary” is rescued from the morgue of moldy classics by an offbeat Latin-inflected arrangement to which piano legend Eddie Bo contributes.
Produced by Stewart Levine, Dis, Dat Or D’Udda also features a bunch of choice tunes you may not have heard, including the title track, with its burbling “Right Place, Wrong Time” keyboard and horn chart; “Marie Laveau”, a seductive spoken and sung narrative about the New Orleans voodoo queen featuring Cyril Neville; and the shambling “Life Is A One Way Ticket”.
Three cute animal tunes may be two too many (I vote for “The Monkey”, with Bo and trumpeter Dave Bartholomew), and Newman tests the limits of his “Toy Story” persona on “I Ate Up The Apple Tree”. But with its synthesis of styles, the music lends itself to the guest stars — Nelson is especially winning on the rollicking blues “Such A Much” — and, as at a good party, when the conversation hits a dead spot, there’s always another voice to turn to.