Dr. John does as promised here, working within the spirit of Louis Armstrong — rather than following the letter of the law. “What a Wonderful World,” the opening cut on his new Ske-Dat-De-Dat: Spirit of Satch, sets the table nicely.
He begins with a gospel feel, courtesy of the rumbling sacred joys of the Blind Boys of Alabama, shifts into a muddy rolling stroll — and then combines the two, before Nicholas Payton steps forward with a solo that captures Armstrong’s ebullient attitude without ever sounding pedantic or like easy mimicry.
And so it goes with the complex and utterly engaging Ske-Dat-De-Dat from Proper Records. Perhaps only a native son like Dr. John, nee Mac Rebennack, has the right to take such liberties — being as he’s earned a kind of shared ownership of the New Orleans musical legacy. Or maybe he’s close enough to the spirit (there’s that word again) of Armstrong to intuitively know which chances to take.
Whatever the circumstances, hoodoo or heritage, that originally surrounded its creation, Ske-Dat-De-Dat never stops experimenting, never stops surprising, and never stops entertaining.
There’s “Mack the Knife,” featuring Terence Blanchard, which is given a funk-nasty kick in the ass. And “Tight Like This,” which becomes a humid, island-influenced reminiscence — punctuated with these Spanish sunflares courtesy of Arturo Sandoval. Then there’s Bonnie Raitt, who tangles with Dr. John on “I’ve Got the World on a String” like a winking ex-lover. Payton returns to help establish the get-down groove on “Gut Bucket Blues,” a classic bit of Rebennack-style R&B. Meanwhile, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” with Anthony Hamilton on vocals, has the sleek, urbane feel of mid-’70s Chicago.
Dr. John captures the stoic rapture of classic gospel, even if he’s coming at it from the very back pew, on tracks like “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” (featuring Ledisi and the McCrary Sisters) and “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” (Blanchard, and the Blind Boys of Alabama). Meanwhile, “Dippermouth Blues” (with James Andrews) and “When You’re Smiling” (Dirty Dozen Brass Band) skip and stomp like a side-alley street parade. Maybe the most fun of all is “Sweet Hunk ‘o Trash.” Featuring a sass-filled call-and-response vocal from Shemekia Copeland, it works like a Crescent City update of Otis Redding and Carla Thomas’s Stax classic “Tramp.”