|On the Shadowy Streets of New Orleans
Published: 04 - 20 - 2000 , Late Edition - Final , Section E , Column 4 , Page 8
NEW YORK TIMES
By JON PARELES
With Dr. John at the keyboards, all roads lead to New Orleans, even the desert path of Juan Tizol and Duke Ellington's ''Caravan.'' Dr. John (Mac Rebennack) has just released an album of Ellington tunes, ''Duke Elegant'' (Blue Note), and he is at the Blue Note, 131 West Third Street in Greenwich Village, through Sunday.
On the album, Dr. John offers New Orleans as the tourist's Big Easy, sunny and indulgent. The music has smoothly chugging backbeat grooves, nonchalant melodies and the casually ornate barrelhouse-piano flourishes that place Dr. John in the great New Orleans piano tradition. He performed with two of the musicians from the album, David Barard on bass and Herman Ernest III on drums, along with Renard Poche on guitar. As on the album, they traded Ellingtonian swing for New Orleans second-line shuffles. But in his first set on Tuesday night, Dr. John conjured a darker New Orleans, full of shady characters and shadowy portents, where a knowing smile masks heartbreak and troubled memories.
Part of the shift was the song choices; Ellington material was interspersed with Mardi Gras Indian songs like ''Iko Iko'' and ''Shoo-Fly,'' which tease at violence and misfortune, along with Dr. John's own wry catalog of bad judgments, ''Right Place, Wrong Time,'' and his vision of psychedelic voodoo mysteries, ''I Walk on Gilded Splinters.'' The group played them at leisurely tempos, maintaining a groove but peering into hidden recesses.
Dr. John also moved deeper into the Ellington songs. His vocals on ''I'm Gonna Go Fishin' '' (about a cheated lover vowing to cheat) and ''Solitude'' gleamed with melancholy behind their cackling syncopation, and Mr. Poche's guitar solos wailed the blues and jabbed with insistent triplets. ''Perdido'' and ''Caravan,'' played on electric organ, moved into smoky back-alley lounges, while ''In a Sentimental Mood'' was draped with gauzy arpeggios, languid as a Tennessee Williams courtesan. The music still spoke of good times, but not thoughtless ones.