Blue notes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 February, 2012, 12:00am


For many jazz and blues fans, hearing New Orleans singer and piano man Dr John was a highlight of the Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Dr John, aka Mac Rebennack, was a man of few words, as I found out during a recent phone interview. There also wasn't a lot of chat with the Arts Festival crowd - cues for audience participation came instead from Raymond Weber, the drummer of his backing group, The Lower 911.

The crowd responded enthusiastically to Weber's exhortations to scream. A few people - observing New Orleans street parade rather than Hong Kong Arts Festival concert etiquette - formed a 'second line', dancing in the aisles with the traditional handkerchiefs and parasols.

Rebennack's distinctively gravel-throated vocal style has remained essentially unchanged since his commercial heyday in the late 1960s and early '70s, and he threw in all the old hits - I Walk on Gilded Splinters, Mama Roux, Right Place Wrong Time and Such a Night, as well as Makin' Whoopee, for which he shared a 1989 Grammy award for best jazz vocal performance by a duo or group with Rickie Lee Jones.

His singing and piano and organ playing provided the main focal points of the performance, but he enjoyed highly effective support from The Lower 911, comprising Weber, bassist David Barard and guitarist John Fohl.

Rebennack picked up his own guitar for a slow version of the Earl King blues standard Let the Good Times Roll. He first recorded it on 1972's Gumbo, reinstating the tune's original tempo, after Jimi Hendrix's more frenetic version of the tune under the title Come On on 1968's Electric Ladyland.

He also featured two of the popular piano tunes from Gumbo: Big Chief, another King composition made famous by Professor Longhair, and Iko Iko, a 1965 hit for the Dixie Cups. The sound, at least on the first night, left something to be desired, with too much treble on Rebennack's vocals, and his piano sometimes too far back in the mix. But that's a small cavil about an otherwise very good night.

Rebennack and Chick Corea might not seem to have much in common beyond the keyboards they play, but both are also septuagenarians who seem to be working harder as they get older, and both are multiple Grammy winners. Rebennack has five Grammys and at this year's ceremony, overshadowed by the sudden death of Whitney Houston, Corea picked up his 17th and 18th.

This is the third time Corea has won two Grammys in the same year - the great jazz pianist picked up a pair in 1977 for his album The Leprechaun, and repeated the trick in 2007 with The Ultimate Adventure. This year he won the award for best jazz instrumental album with Forever, an acoustic jazz set made with Return to Forever bandmates Stanley Clarke and Lenny White, and also the Grammy for best improvised jazz solo, for a piano tour de force on his own 500 Miles High on the same album.

However, Corea is not resting on his laurels. Further Explorations, a trio set exploring the legacy of pianist Bill Evans and featuring Evans associates bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer the late Paul Motian, was released in mid January.

Three weeks later, on February 7, classical music label Deutsche Grammophon released The Continents: Concerto for Jazz Quintet and Chamber Orchestra (and re-released a collection of piano duets from 1982 called On Two Pianos featuring Corea and the late Nicolaus Economou).

That's two new albums in two months, and the year is still young. His last release of 2011, a collection of piano duets, Orvieto, featuring Stefano Bollani, came out on ECM last September.

An extended version of Further Explorations is available on a USB drive from his website,

Corea celebrated his 70th birthday last November with a two-week residency at the Blue Note club in New York featuring associates from his career, and some of that music may well come out on CD later in the year.

Take Three

His shelf of Grammy awards must be gratifying, but much of Corea's best work is on albums which either weren't nominated or failed to win. Here are three of the best.

Tones for Joan's Bones (Atlantic, 1967): Corea's debut album as a leader including, with the title track, his first contribution to the jazz standards book. He already had a reputation as a pianist. This set established him as a composer.

Light as a Feather (Verve, 1972): the second album by the first line-up of the Return to Forever collective contains the original recordings of 500 Miles High, Captain Marvel and, perhaps his best-known composition, Spain, which was nominated for two Grammy awards.

Crystal Silence (ECM, 1973): the first in a series of duet albums by Corea and vibraphonist Gary Burton established many of the recurring tunes in the set list for their tours. They had to wait until 2008's New Crystal Silence live double CD to pick up their first joint Grammy.