During his keynote address at last year’s Satchmo SummerFest, Wycliffe Gordon opined that nobody but Louis Armstrong could possibly bring off a song like “What a Wonderful World.”
One track into this album, Dr. John proves Gordon wrong. Mac Rebennack isn’t the first to cover this chestnut—even Joey Ramone had a go at it—but he may be the first to do it as funk. After the Blind Boys of Alabama’s a cappella intro, the band proceeds to dance all over the tune; Nicholas Payton plays an exuberant solo and Dr. John sings it as if he’s genuinely amazed to see the skies of blue and the friends shaking hands. It’s a version that revitalizes the song, bypassing the sweet sentiment and going straight for the underlying joy.
Dr. John’s been teasing this album for a while now—he played a preview track as a Jazz Fest encore two years ago—and its release comes at a notable time in his career. It’s the follow up to Locked Down, the Black Keys collaboration that briefly made him trendy with the young folks. It’s also his first release since his controversial step of losing the Lower 911 and installing trombonist Sarah Morrow as musical director. Morrow co-produced and arranged Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch, and while many of the arrangements hit the target—like a rollicking, second-line “When You’re Smiling” with the Dirty Dozen—there are also times when it feels over-arranged and guest-starred.
Chief among them is the splicing of a rap break into “Mack the Knife,” which adds some clunky lyrics (“This song’s about murder”—well, right), and takes the steam out of a version that was doing fine. Likewise, Termary’s Spanish vocals on “Tight like That” sound like an after-the-fact overdub and add none of the intended steam, especially since Dr. John himself is barely evident on the track.
At times like this, you have to miss his old band’s unfailing funk.
Fortunately, the rest of the disc stays closer to home. If you’ve missed Dr. John in crooner mode—something he hasn’t really done since 1995’s Afterglow—you get a taste on “Memories of You.” I’m more partial to “Sweet Hunk O’Trash,” where he and Shemekia Copeland at least equal the saltiness of the Satchmo/Billie Holiday version.
And the swinging takes on “World on a String” (with Bonnie Raitt) and “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” sounds exactly like you’d expect a Dr. John version to sound—which is to say, exactly right.