The last two years have been the right place and the right time for many New Orleans and jazz artists who want to pay tribute to their ravaged hometown. Dr. John is no different, but on Mercernary he offers a different take – recording songs originally written by Johnny Mercer.
At first glance, this appears to be a great idea; a 2006 update of classics like “You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby,” “Moon River,” “I'm An Old Cowhand” and “That Old Black Magic” is long overdue, and certainly someone as eccentric as Dr. John will fit the bill. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite play out that way -- the versions are certainly different but not necessarily exciting, and the disc instead needs to be taken on its own merits as a laid-back lounge trip.
Instead of lending these classics an infusion of adrenaline, the doctor instead settles on a jazz nightclub groove, the kind you can snap along to while drinking a martini under some dim lights. Lounge music, really, which suits John's raspy Randy Newman-like voice. In fact, Dr. John is the original Leon Russell, but without that man's eccentric sensibility. All this is to say the disc is interesting and a fairly good mood piece; music to drink and smoke to, even if you do neither.
Dr. John and his band hit some peaks with the twin blues of “Personality” and “Hit The Road To Dreamland,” featuring some solid piano work from the doctor and a smoky sax solo courtesy of Herbert Hardesty. “I'm An Old Cowhand” is given a bit of funk, but never really takes off like it threatens to, but “Dream” is better in that it manages to be greasy, funky and faithful all at once.
About the only time John's band breaks the lounge atmosphere is on “Moon River,” which either greatly improves on or ruins the original, depending on your point of view. It doesn't seem a love song like this should be so... sexual, really, but some excellent bass work and the bragging strut of the band makes it infectious, almost as if they're saying “We're jazzing up a classic. Deal with it.” I'm happy to oblige on such radical re-workings of classics.
The instrumental “Tangerine” is bold and beautiful while still laid-back, while “I Ain't No Johnny Mercer” finds Dr. John in a bit of self-deprecation, although this new song is just as good as any of Johnny's, particularly on the doctor's soulful, searching vocals. The band closes with “Save the Bones for Henry Jones,” where drummer Herman V. Ernest opens with some insistent pounding before settling into a solid groove that John and Hardesty ride with their piano and sax, respectively.
It should be noted that music like this is rare in 2006, so hearing adaptations and new tracks that update the soul/jazz/blues feel of early nightclubs is kind of a treat. Yet while John's interpretations are certainly interesting, the disc as a whole feels like sort of a missed opportunity, a chance passed by to really spice these up like one expects. But this shouldn't discount the smoky nightclub feel of Mercernary and the fact that these musicians were willing to reinvent some classics while staying true to their roots. It's certainly not a necessary CD, but it makes for good lounge music.