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Paying tribute to a city and a songwriter

Dr. John to bring the flavor of New Orleans to Tanglewood

By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | September 1, 2006

Dr. John has a dual mission for his Tanglewood Jazz Festival performance tomorrow night: He'll introduce the audience to his new album, "Mercernary," and he'll pay tribute to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. "It'll be like a Johnny Mercer-meets-New Orleans kind of night," says the 65-year-old music legend.

Tanglewood is the latest stop on Dr. John's tour promoting "Mercernary," his delightful new Mercer tribute on Blue Note Records. Joining him for that part of the program will be guest vocalists John Pizzarelli, Ann Hampton Callaway, Irma Thomas, and Catherine Russell, plus an all-star horn section of Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, Craig Handy on tenor sax, and Howard Johnson on baritone sax. Callaway will join Dr. John for duet versions of "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Makin' Whoopee." (Dr. John's recorded version of the latter with Rickie Lee Jones won a 1989 Grammy.)

"I love how natural he is," says Callaway, who sang the two tunes with him earlier this summer in New York. "The thing I really enjoyed about performing with him, we didn't really come up with an arrangement per se. We just sort of listened to each other and made music. There's such a sense of freedom and fun."

Once the Mercer tribute wraps up, the evening's opening headliner, Wynton Marsalis, will return to the stage to join Dr. John and Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, for a tribute honoring their devastated hometown during this first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Dr. John says his next album, for which he is now assembling demos from collaborators, will be made up of new songs focused on New Orleans and Katrina. Expect an angry record. Dr. John is furious at the government for what happened to his city.

"I'm tryin' to get something to maybe open it and close it on a not-angry note," says Dr. John, who uses his real name, Mac Rebennack, in conversation. "But right now, just about everything for me and my co-writers is, I couldn't even call it 'anger.' I'd call it 'pissed off.' "

Dr. John is not a naturally angry man, however. The Mercer material he'll draw from tomorrow is loaded with nostalgic charm. The idea came from his daughter, Tina, who'd been urging him to record "Personality" for years. He was surprised to learn Mercer hadn't written "Personality" himself, but he liked Mercer's 1946 hit recording of it enough to want to make an album of that song and others Mercer had written lyrics to.

Tina sent her dad a bunch of possibilities to check out, but some he found he couldn't sing convincingly. "Like 'Skylark,'" he explains. "I love that song, but I just couldn't pull it off. For me to do a song, no matter what song it be, I've gotta really feel that song."

Dr. John had better luck with other Mercer favorites: "Blues in the Night," "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby," "Come Rain or Come Shine," and "Moon River" are among those to make the album. He also plucked a couple of more obscure Mercer gems. One was "I'm an Old Cowhand," which Sonny Rollins had previously unearthed for an album nearly 50 years ago.

"Tangerine," meanwhile, took Dr. John back to his New Orleans youth. "Red Tyler used to always play 'Tangerine,' and I just did that as a tribute to Red on this record," he says. "Before he passed away, he was always a bandleader in a studio band in New Orleans, and he was kind of like my mentor."

Tyler was on hand for Dr. John's first studio experience. So was tenor saxophonist Herbert Hardisty, who performs on three tracks on "Mercernary."

"Herbert Hardisty, who's on this record playing a lot of stuff, and Red were the horn section, along with Dave Bartholomew," he recalls. "I walked in on a session, and Dave just leaned over for the last note of the song and hit a fat chord. It was just like, 'Wow.' That's my first memory of seeing a recording session. That's like a long, long time ago in the '40s. I wasn't even playing music then or anything, I don't think."

Dr. John also contributed a song of his own to the album, "I Ain't No Johnny Mercer," itself a pastiche of Mercerisms. One in particular struck his fancy, in a way perhaps only a fellow singer-songwriter can fully appreciate.

"It was a line in one song that absolutely fried me," Rebennack explains, laughing, "where he said something about 'sexy and apoplexy,' for a rhyme. I'm thinking, 'Who the hell would say the word apoplexy?' It's such a poppin'-of-the-mike word. And who would have ever cut the damn song? It just completely cracked me up."

Dr. John performs after Wynton Marsalis tomorrow at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival. Show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets $22 to $75. Call 888-266-1200 or visit www.tanglewoodjazzfestival.com.

© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
© Bill Beuttler