To get into the groove, Dr. John says he ate African food and listened to Ethiopian jazz

Dr. John’s forthcoming collaboration with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach has a turbulent, polyrhythmic propulsion, and that’s no accident, the legendary keyboardist says.

Over 17 days of focused recording at Auerbach’s Nashville studio last fall, Dr. John says they completely immersed themselves in African culture. Auerbach even brought in musicians who specialized in African styles — like Afro-pop drummer Max Weissenfeldt and bassist Nick Movshon, another master in the country’s syncopated indigenous textures.

Then, they went deeper. They ate the food; they listened to the music. The results, called Locked Down, are due April 3 from Nonesuch.

“It was funny, because we were sitting in his studio and we’d be on a roll from eating Ethiopian food and listening to Ethiopian jazz,” Dr. John says, “and then we’d cut something, and it kind of rubbed off. There is a lot of northwest African stuff in there and northeast African stuff — and there is some stuff that reminds me a little bit of Fela Kuti.”

Of course, many of these sounds entered into the American musical milieu by way of the port at Dr. John’s hometown of New Orleans, so he likely felt right at home. But a tight focus on roughing up the keyboardist’s sound — Auerbach actually brought along an album of Ethiopian jazz by vibraphonist Mulatu Astatke when he made his pitch to produce this project — is no doubt a huge part of why Locked Down is such a return to form for Dr. John.

“He pushed and pulled me in some ways that made something different happen,” Dr. John tells The New York Times. “He’s an aware little cat.”

Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on Dr. John — including our preview of ‘Locked Down.’ Click through the titles for complete reviews …

DR. JOHN – LOCKED DOWN (2012): The project begins with a humid closeness, as night sounds surround the title track’s lean rhythms, and it never backs away. Auerbach matches Dr. John’s cranky hoodoo-man vocals, song by song, with his own brown-gravy groove — and, in a move that gives the album its signature sound, encouraged Dr. John to explore his familiar penchant for spooky funk at the organ. What you end up with is the best Dr. John album in ages, as swampy and oozy as the Night Tripper’s 1968 triumph Gris Gris but as gnarled and tough as 1998′s Anutha Zone.

DR. JOHN AND THE LOWER 911 – THE CITY THAT CARE FORGOT (2008): Sorrow and hope have now turned to rage. Dr. John’s message is directed squarely at the Washington politicians and is blunt: we’re still suffering and in your greed, you’ve forgotten about us. The good thing about the anger is that angry artists tend to be more invested in their work. There’s a certain grittiness that’s been missing from most of Mac Rebbenack’s work for a couple of decades and it’s great to see him return to the sound of his Allen Toussaint days when The Meters and the Bonnaroo Horns backed him up.

DR. JOHN – MOS’ SCOCIOUS (1993) As Mac Rebbenack, aka Dr. John the Night Tripper, says: He’s done “whatever I had to do to get the job did.” Over the years, this amounts to a list of jobs including, but not limited to, snot-nosed duck-tailed rocker, record producer, songwriter, way-out psychedelic pop star, reliable recording-session sideman and, at this point, a comfortable late-career existence of laurel-riding as a jazz and soul pioneer. Rhino’s two-disc retrospective, like Dr. John’s recorded output itself through the early 1990s, seemed to point to a career and creative retrenchment. (The good news is, he pulled out of that.) Mos’ Scocious moves from tough, late-1950s rock ‘n’ roll — when Mac was writing and playing in a group called, no lie, Ronnie and the Delinquents — to the tripped-out bliss of 1968′s “Gris Gris” recording, with all its Mardi Gras mambo beats and dim, sweaty melodies. Next comes the hip pop successes of 1973′s In the Right Place and the solo joys of Dr. John Plays Mac Rebbenack, where he takes a curious, yet very rewarding step backward — covering his hero Professor Longhair, for instance — during an odd period when he wasn’t signed to any major label. Finally, there are the smooth, if not exactly adventurous, jazz stylings of In a Sentimental Mood, the 1989 Warner Bros. release.

DR. JOHN WITH THE METERS – DESITIVELY BONNAROO (1974): Dr. John further defines an ass-shaking new synthesis on Desitively Bonnaroo. Even today, there’s really no roadmap for the crazy-eyed co-mingling of R&B, jazz, island beats, blues, boogie funk and hoodoo whackadoo splashed across this LP, recorded alongside fellow New Orleans legends Allen Toussaint and the Meters more than 35 years ago. At the same time, the grooves here are so sleekly ingratiating as to be therapeutic. Bonnaroo doesn’t aspire to the brash, edgy soul of contemporaries like George Clinton or the Ohio Players. No, it’s too sophisticated, too mysterious, for that. Which is probably why this 1974 cluster-funk didn’t sell nearly as well as its predecessor, Dr. John’s breakthough In the Right Place.

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