Recording of June 2006: Mercernary
Blue Note 3 54541 2 (CD). 2006. Dr. John, prod.; Mark Bingham, eng. AAD? TT: 49:45
Talking to Mac Rebennack is a little like what I imagine talking to Lester Young must have been like. Both converse in their own hip, profane, utterly distinct lexicon—in Mac's case, growled out with a mixture of utter conviction and a bemused wink. A few examples: On recording Johnny Mercer's "Dream" for this record, the good doctor said he didn't want it to become a "regulation VFW hall geriatric squad dance." Describing the way he and his band made Mercernary, he said they "hit it and quit it." And when asked about the way the rest of the country is treating post-Katrina New Orleans, he said, in part (and, I'm betting, with disgust), "We don't even grade up to regulation third-world-country bullshit." My personal fave is when he calls children "sprouts."
Today, at 65, he and his music have also settled into their own sort of groove. Ask a longtime fan about a new Dr. John record, and the answer is, inevitably, "It's a Mac record"—meaning he does what he does, it's not going to change, and it's reliably good to great.
In taking on the Johnny Mercer songbook, Mac has forced himself to not only stretch, but to come to terms with an equally eccentric musical personality. The Southern-born Mercer, who died in 1976, remains one of the greatest American popular lyricists and songwriters. He scored such films as Seven Brides of Seven Brothers, won four Academy Awards for Best Song, and even became the best-known voice for some of his own material, such as "On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe." One of the founders of Capitol Records, he's probably best known for his collaborations with Harold Arlen ("Blues in the Night") and Henry Mancini ("Moon River").
The trick with songbook records is to make your mark on material that's already too familiar—to bring new insight and inspiration to, say, "Moon River," which for most Americans was turned to iconic yet saccharine mush thanks to versions by the Ray Conniff Singers and Andy Williams. On Mercernary, his band—guitarist John Fohl, bassist David Barard, and drummer Herman Ernest III—set a crisp, funky tempo over which Mac croons, pausing ever so slightly to wiggle his voice down into the words "my huckleberry friend," which he mentions in his latest Blue Note artist bio as being his favorite words in this song. It makes for an experience that's dramatically different not only from Conniff and Williams, but also from 99.9% of all other performances of this tune you'll ever hear.
That pattern holds for the rest of Mercernary: The arrangements are carefully and radically different from anything you might have expected. This seems to mean that Mac put some serious time into thinking about this record. The virtues of spontaneity and nailing everything in one take aside, Mac has in the past sometimes tossed off his records too quickly. Here, though, he's sharp and on the case, which means that hearing "I'm an Old Cowhand," which you've heard a thousand times before, is a voyage of discovery. In general, the more well-known a tune is here, the more radical Mac's changes on it are. New Orleans rhythms dominate or at least tinge every performance. The great "Blues in the Night," which opens the record, is a model of how to defeat expectations and revive interest in a done-to-death song. "That Old Black Magic" is virtually unrecognizable and may be the one set of liberties taken too far.
Vocally, Mac makes do with a talky growl that's increasingly soulful but markedly less elastic and tuneful than it once was, but that nevertheless fits perfectly with some of his phrasing. When he sings—in his funky, Meters-like take on "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby"—"You must have been a hip little chil'," or uses a nasal tone that says get down as he draws out the word beautiful, about all you can do is smile and marvel.
On Mercernary, much of which he'll undoubtedly perform at Home Entertainment 2006, June 1–4, in Los Angeles, Mac saves the best for last. The album's only original tune, "I Ain't No Johnny Mercer," is the kind of let's-jam-it-up funk vamp that I'm bettin' he can do in his sleep. Finally, there's "Save the Bones for Henry Jones," written by Vernon Lee and Mac's pal, the late, great New Orleans guitarist Danny Barker, and later tweaked and performed by Nat Cole and Mercer. Falling into the record's easiest and most heartfelt groove, the Dr. again uses that nasal tone to great effect (eat becomes eeeeeeeaaatt), along the way adding amusing dribs of Mac lexicon as he ad-libs asides about Henry, "who don't eat no meat," such as: "a fruit man," "He hangs around that health food store," and the fastball "he's a vegiterrible."
At a time when most of the greatest New Orleans musicians from the city's glorious musical past have died, and many of those left alive have now been driven away by the hurricane, Mac Rebennack's longevity has made him one of the last links to the golden age of Crescent City music. Few people can pound out a second-line rhythm the way Mac still can. In succeeding with a record of Johnny Mercer tunes, he also shows how connected he is to that great mainspring of American popular song, Tin Pan Alley. Proficiencies in show tunes and New Orleans funk is a singular combination. It's not hyperbole to say that the man has become a national musical treasure. Here's to hoping he always remains irascible and vivid—or, as he'd put it, "the real McGillicuddy."—Robert Baird