John ‘Papa’ Gros – River’s On Fire (2016)

Share this:

John “Papa” Gros has one of the most distinctive voices, and also the clearest enunciation in jazz. His words are direct, the songs are voluminous and for over a quarter of a century he has produced music which championed the music of New Orleans.

In August 2016, he releases River’s On Fire, which combines jazz, funk, rock and roll and a touch of reggae into an un-boxable genre all his own. Throughout the album, there are references to the historical sound and places of the Big Easy whilst Gros takes the listener to a newly crafted landscape which will undoubtedly contribute to its future.

Gros took much inspiration from his friend and New Orleans fixture Allen Toussaint. Toussaint was a composer of songs including “Java,” “Working in the Coal Mine” and “Southern Nights,” and produced for Dr. John, among others. Many musicians recorded his compositions. Gros’ album was recorded in Louisiana, and is the first release since the disbanding of his quintet Papa Grows Funk. They were famous for a residency at the legendary Maple Leaf Bar in uptown New Orleans, playing a mix of smooth jazz and riotous Mari Gras music. Papa Grows Funk’s fifth album Needle in the Groove, in fact, was co-produced by Toussaint – who recently passed away suddenly.

For River’s On Fire, John “Papa” Gros switches from the familiar guitar to piano, but he keeps his focus. Throughout the album, which also features guitarist Brian Stoltz and was mixed by Grammy award winner Trina Shoemaker, Gros said he was paying homage to Toussaint.

The album opens with “Crazy,” a big number with a thunking beat and manic lyrics. It does what it says on the tin, and is a great opener. “River’s On Fire” is a song with a network of patterned grooves, slotting into each other like giant Jenga, but it works and the rhythms never cease. There is funk in them there hills, and most of it finds its way to John “Papa” Gros’ keyboard work.

“Her Love Can’t Be Denied” is a tale of fantastical love where Gros describes the power of a delectable woman. He paints pictures with his keys and words. The track ends with some great percussion and drum connections before the guitar fade. “Sugar and Ice” is naughty, but rather nice. It delights in the telling of a sexy encounter and is growly, thrumming and a tale deliciously told. The middle section suddenly empties and all we hear is the rhythm and voice. Lovely!

“Two Little Angels” is a ballad to children, and far gentler in both its delivery and composition. A beautifully worked guitar behind the keys adds a light, floating motion behind the swinging beat. “House of Love” puts pay to the gentleness with a rocky, big groove sound which transports the listener to a home filled with emotion. “Shaky Frank” is fun, trite and a total delight. Keeping still to this is not an option, and the story of Frank is told in all its glory with tongue firmly in cheek. There is a groovy guitar section, and the percussion lifts the whole track.

“Same Old Same” is almost spiritual in its delivery and harmonies, and the melancholy story of revisiting dilapidated areas and memories they evoke is well told. But there is love here too, and a softness to the telling and words which pull on the heart. A rocky guitar solo draws the number towards the final chorus, and the words “makes a man love again” just sort of hang there. Clever.

“Why’d Ya Do It” is a reggae-beat uplifting number – much needed at this point, and deftly delivered. This is a very cleverly arranged number, with little silences making just as much of an impact as the superb drums, keys and vocals. “Cocaine and Chicken Fricasse” is a wonderful track, and the highlight of River’s On Fire. Featuring deep, ruminating bass lines over intense percussion and angry, forceful vocals, this track is created, wrapped and delivered to the listener as a gift and combines funky rhythms with deep, jazz referenced back rhythms. Absolutely bloody marvelous.

“This New Year’s Eve” finishes the album with a sad, melancholy tune of love lost and oblivion sought, and demonstrates John “Papa” Gros’ voice well. A beautiful little interlude where the tune shrinks into the minor keys adds to sadness embodied in the vocals, before it grows once again into the gorgeous melody of the main theme.

River’s On Fire works on several levels. It is one of those albums you “see,” because the stories are so clearly and well told, with the composition backing them up so that you feel like you are on a journey with this master of funky-jazzery. It may be a walk away from jazz towards something totally funky, but you can hear the jazz in there. Each song is a tale in itself, and deftly told. Gros has an amazing voice and such a warmth comes across; it is very engaging.

There is predictability here in that the songs follow a format to some extent, but it works and there is ample variation and different telling to make them still interesting and attention holding. River’s On Fire is immensely listenable and one which has clearly been produced from the deep heart of John “Papa” Gros. The arrangements are good, the vocals crystal clear, and Gros is blessed with a voice and intonation which makes his music easy to listen to. Throughout, the expert story teller that he is comes shining through. Enjoyable from the first bar to the last.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, and, among others. Contact Something Else! at
Sammy Stein
Share this: