What happens when you mix a bit of gris-gris with a touch of classic jazz? You get a party of an album such as Dr. John’s Ske-Dat-Ske-Dat: The Spirit of Satch! The late Mac Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John, frequently drew on the classic sounds of New Orleans as he conjured his own musical voodoo. Most appropriately, his final studio album was a tribute to one of the most significant figures to ever emerge from the Crescent City. Louis Armstrong transformed the sounds of both jazz and popular music, and on the 2014 LP, Dr. John sought to honor Satchmo’s achievements while bringing in world music, funk, hip-hop, and Latin influences.
The Last Music Company has recently reissued Ske-Dat-Ske-Dat: The Spirit of Satch on both vinyl and compact disc, adorning the album with a new cover featuring Dr. John’s familiar visage. It’s an upbeat, spirited, and brash tribute with world-class artists; Dr. John serves as a musical host as well as central performer. Naturally, trumpeters – including Terence Blanchard, Arturo Sandoval, James “12” Andrews, and Wendell Brunious – are all over this disc co-produced by Dr. John and arranger Sarah Morrow.
That this was no ordinary tribute is evident from its very first track. With guests Nicholas Payton and The Blind Boys of Alabama, Dr. John transforms “What a Wonderful World” into a rollicking, brassy, and bright anthem of optimism; trumpeter Payton returns for “Gut Bucket Blues,” one of Armstrong’s own compositions and a classic from his legendary Hot Five band of 1925. (The album title derives from another Hot Five specialty, “Skid-Dat-De-Dat.”)
Dr. John plays even faster and looser with Kurt Weill’s famous melody to “Mack the Knife,” drawling the Bertolt Brecht/Marc Blitzstein lyrics in his inimitable fashion as Terence Blanchard adds smoky trumpet; Mike Ladd contributes a rap (“This song’s about murder,” he helpfully and accurately reminds). It might turn off purists but shows just how much the good Doctor refused to remain stagnant or locked into one particular period or style. The diversity of sounds is what makes Ske-Dat-Ske-Dat such a vibrant tribute.
A slinky hip-hop vibe and Latin rhythm are applied to “Tight Like This,” with Arturo Sandoval’s horn honoring Satch as Cuban rapper Telmary delivers the spoken-word portions. Elsewhere on the set, Sandoval channels Armstrong’s tone even more explicitly on the tender “Memories of You.” In addition to Dr. John’s own freewheeling warbling, there are more traditional vocals here. Bonnie Raitt lends her bluesy pipes to Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s ebullient “I’ve Got the World on a String” as she and the Doc trade off lines. On “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” Anthony Hamilton offers deep-soul vocals in contrast to the smooth, shimmering backdrop. Ledisi leads the gospel-flavored “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” with the McCrory Sisters for support and Dr. John tickling the ivories. One of his most ingratiating vocals is heard on the laconic, heartfelt “That’s My Home.” Wendell Brunious of The Preservation Hall Jazz Band and The McCrorys join him on the heart-tugging paean. (Note that the track actually opens Side Two of the LP rather than ending Side One as listed on the sleeve.) Equally affecting is “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” featuring Blanchard and The Blind Boys.
Ske-Dat-De-Dat can be both hot (Shemekia Copeland’s playful “Sweet Hunk of Trash”) and cool (the fast and furious horn section of “Dippermouth Blues”), reflecting the variety of Armstrong’s timeless repertoire. The big sound of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band is enlisted for the closing track, a buoyant reading of a song which Armstrong helped popularize in 1929: Larry Shay, Mark Fisher, and Joe Goodwin’s eternal “When You’re Smiling.”
Though there are no remastering credits on the package, the vinyl pressing is quiet and detailed. There is a brief “In Memoriam” introduction from Malcolm Mills on the back cover of the jacket but unfortunately the comprehensive track-by-track credits included in the 2014 vinyl pressing haven’t been retained here. The Last Music Company’s reissue of Ske-Dat-Ske-Dat: The Spirit of Satch is a welcome one, as the spirits of both Dr. John and Louis Armstrong remain as powerful as ever. This joyous celebration from one master to another is ample proof.