It might be heretical to say, but I’m not always in the mood for Dr. John. The Dr. John concept is an ambitious, resonant one, but there are days where a ninth-warder-than-thou voodoo dude doesn’t speak to me. The subtle smartness of his lyrics can be lost in the hipster jive, and the voodoo doesn’t always feel as current as it probably should.
In 1981, Dr. John went to New York City and recorded the solo piano Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack and it was immediately hailed as one of his finest albums. It was less artistically adventurous, but it was a clear, simple pleasure. It was also arguably as perfect a documentation of the New Orleans piano style as exists.
After the success of that album, Dr. John returned to the same studio a year later to record a follow-up, The Brightest Smile in Town, and despite its title, this CD is a reissue of that album, with a number of previously unreleased tracks added. This album is as charming as Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack, and if it didn’t get as much attention, it’s because The Brightest Smile in Town was his second trip to the same well. His playing is beautiful, clean, and most importantly, patient. His relaxed tempos let the simple loveliness of the title track and the gentle fun of James Black’s “Monkey Puzzle” shine through. He never makes technique the reason for a track, or if he does, he does so with enough subtlety to let the focus remain on his exploration of melody and how many digressive runs and fills it can take and still hold together.
Ultimately, Dr. John’s art finds its fullest expression in character with larger bands dealing with the interaction between New Orleans and Caribbean cultures, but the two solo piano albums that Clean Cuts are now treating as Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack, Volume One and Two focus on an aspect of his art that sometimes gets overlooked.
Right Place, Right Time, on the other hand, presents the most popular incarnation of Dr. John live. Recorded in 1989, it’s after his most psychedelic phase, and the bluesified version of “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” hints at the musical interpreter phase he would enter. Opening with “Junco Partner” and closing with “Such a Night,” it’s a crowd-pleasing set enlivened by Amadee Castanell’s barwalking honking on the sax. There’s not much news here, but Right Place, Right Time documents Dr. John having a very good night.