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James Booker Was Hands Down the Greatest New Orleans Piano Player Ever

Time:2016-11-26 16:17Shoes websites Click:

United States Louisiana Music BeastStyle New Orleans

In the rain forest of New Orleans music, lush with trumpets, reeds, and drummers who parade the dead to the afterlife, one instrumental tradition holds a terrain of high fertility. That is the piano. No other U.S. city has generated such a distinctive line of pianists. Piano players are custodians of melody: singers ignite the masses: some few artists do both.

From Jelly Roll Morton, who channeled ragtime into demanding compositions at the dawn of jazz, unto Professor Longhair’s prancing rumba rhythms in the ’50s and Fats Domino’s boogie-pounding fingers and rich honeyed baritone that got white teenagers up and dancing, the New Orleans piano lineage is a story of artists taking a tradition out on regenerating cul-de-sacs that curl back to a ground beat of melody. 

Art Neville came of age in the ’50s when Huey Smith and the Clowns hit the charts with “Rocking Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu.” Huey followed Domino’s good-time R&B style. Schooled in the R&B dance hall stomps, Neville found a greater influence in Longhair’s Caribbean left hand—what Jelly called the “Spanish Tinge”—island rhythms of carnival that colored Art’s keyboard on the 1976 Mardi Gras Indian classic, The Wild Tchoupitoulas.

Dr. John fused the best of Fess and Fats in a keyboard signature as wide-ranging as anything rock has seen. Allen Toussaint gave the piano line a beautiful high impressionism (particularly on his late, mostly instrumental albums Bright Mississippi and American Tunes), matched by a poetic lyricism in his river of compositions.

The artists who hit their stride in the ’70s and ’80s set out from that keyboard intersection of Fats and Fess, with variations of melody influenced by shifting cross-rhythms of feet on the street—Henry Butler, Harry Connick Jr., Jon Cleary, Joe Krown, Davell Crawford, Marcia Ball, and not least, Tom McDermott, a world-class talent whose exceptional reach cradles habanera, Brazilian choro, and other far-flung styles.

In this grand procession across time James Booker was the rare piano player, the outsider-as-insider, an extravagant bohemian adept in the music of Fats and Fess, and with a classically-trained precision to undergird his flights of improvisational fancy. Booker on a good night was a wonder of the world. His roaming on “Malaguena” (by Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona and found on Booker’s Spiders on the Keys) is a marvel of formality and experimental range. Released in 1992, Spiders on the Keys is taken from cuts recorded live at his hub, the Maple Leaf Bar, between 1977 and 1982. Spiders was a labor of love for esteemed Rounder producer Scott Billington and John Parsons, manager of the Maple Leaf, who spent years dealing with Booker in his carousel of moods and the musical passions that animate this recording.

Toussaint, Dr. John, and other peers had huge admiration for Booker’s talent; but his long battle with drugs, the mystery of the missing eye beneath the star-emblazoned black patch and the stark swings of mood suggesting bipolar disorder gave him the reputation of a crazy. A loveable crazy, sometimes, but he was also prone to darkness and unpredictability.

He stiff-armed yearning producers and club-owners in New York, Chicago, and other foreign countries eager to book him and organize studio sessions. He hated to leave New Orleans, an outpost of funk where he felt comfortable, yet a town with few high dollar venues to reward him. Booker had so many recordings yet to make when he died in 1983 of a drug overdose, age 43, sitting in the Charity Hospital waiting room, waiting. Someone unknown dropped him off there and split.

Booker had a huge following among musicians and a cult of aficionados when he died. His 13 CDs in circulation (the song lists have some overlap) reveal a player of “joy, wit, intelligence, and sheer bloody mayhem,” as Hugh Laurie, the actor and himself a substantial practitioner of New Orleans piano, says in Bayou Maharaja, a documentary feature directed by Lily Keber, now available on Amazon, iTunes, and Netflix.

Bayou Maharaja and a new Davell Crawford release, In the Vaults Vol. 1 (Basin Street Records) are a rejuvenating showcase for Booker’s music to millennials weaned on downloads and those baby-boomers, long in the tooth, who missed the self-styled Piano Prince alive and now, couch potatoes at the apocalypse, wallow in joys of Amazon. Just press send!

Booker bolstered his manic reputation with an obsession for conspiracy theories. He loved the rhyming potential in acronyms: The FBI, CIA and KKK seemed all of a piece in certain things he sang and said. One night at Tipitina’s in the mid ’70s, I sat on a neighboring bar stool as he told the guitarist and composer Earl King “that FBI-CIA underground took Nixon down. Watergate? Ain’t nothing but a building, Earl! Pres-ident of the USA, smacked by a train of FBI ’n’ CIA! Never saw it coming.”

Ah, Booker. Sweet, brilliant, broken James.

The conspiracy song he sang in varied versions had its own disguise.

On “Papa Was A Rascal,” he improvised on his own lyrics many times. The core version, more or less, goes less comme ca:

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