Still night tripping

Dr. John is in the right place at the right time

Dr. John and the Nite-Trippers

What: Ottawa International Jazz Festival
When: June 20 at 8:30 p.m.
Where: Confederation Park
Tickets & information: The festival runs June 20-July 1.

The Night-Tripper isn’t really much of a day person, but he gave it a good effort.

“I don’t get up early too much. Sometimes we have to travel at really weird hours of the morning but that’s not my best time,” he said in an interview in advance of his June 20 appearance at the Ottawa International Jazz Festival.

Wide awake or half asleep, Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, remains one of the iconic musical figures from that most iconic musical city, New Orleans.

Unlike his hometown, though, Dr. John is on an upswing. He’s once again at the right place at the right time.

He’s got a new album, forged with Dan Auerbach, one of the brains behind the Grammy-winning duo The Black Keys, and he recently received an honourary doctorate from Tulane University, a surprising recognition that really tickles the man. Call him Dr. Dr. John.

“Tulane University gave me this doctorate thing, it was a real spiritual thing for me.”

At 72, he feels blessed to be doing what he loves with great musicians. The collaboration with Auerbach came a bit out of the blue.

“He called me up one day and said he wanted to write some songs and he came over by the pad. Actually, no, we met at some studio, that’s what it was, in New Orleans, then we went over by the pad after that and tried to write some songs. Everything just went a different way than either one of us was thinkin’.

“He (Auerbach) started talking to me while we were doing this record about things he heard me saying and we just did a record in that direction. It was kind of cool.

“I think he’s a good little record producer. He’s really good. Some people just is musicians and some people is doing different things. That’s what I started out doin’ a long long time ago in the 1950s.

“I was taught by some really good people, like Red Tyler and Edgar Blanchard, guys who were really talented taught me to do that. And it was a blessing in a lot of ways for me.”

The album, called Locked Down, is in many ways a return to the kind of music Dr. John was playing in the early days of his career. One reviewer has called it gonzo gumbo.

“I look at it, it was like he was aiming to do something akin to some of the old stuff that I did back in the gris-gris days. That, I thought, was interesting all to itself.”

Dr. John has worked with many of rock’s greats over the years.

“I don’t think of it as collaboratin’. I just think of it as this project and that project and some of them has been really off-the-hook blessings.”

He has fond memories, for example, of performing with Aretha Franklin, who had to cancel her appearance at the Jazz Festival because of health concerns.

“I’ll always remember playing on Spanish Harlem with Aretha. At that time her sisters were all singing with her and they were really slammin’.

“I’ve got to work with a whole lot of different people over the years and whether it’s long ago or today I believe what Louis Armstrong always said: There’s only two kinds of music: good music and bad music.”

When you work with a good artists they have the magic, he says.

“I gotta call from Stevie Wonder about this thing. We got cut off because my phone signal wasn’t good. But when I called him back we couldn’t connect, but just to hear from him for a minute, it felt good. It’s like people that are plugged in in some way or shape, it’s always a blessing.”

The Doctor wasn’t always good to his body. As a young man he used hard drugs and he partied hearty.

But about 24 years ago he turned his life around. “I had a lot of revelations hit me and I shifted a lot of gears that I thought I was stuck in for life.

“I think it’s the one common thing that always runs through my spirit. is the music. And that is something sacred to me.”

In many ways Dr. John is intimately connected to New Orleans, and he cares about what happens there. That’s why “it’s not easy to leave New Orleans. There was times I had to be in other places but that’s just life.”

The city is still finding its way after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but it isn’t easy, he says.

“But we gotta just keep rollin’.

“There’s whole areas that have not come back. The lower Ninth Ward is never coming back, even though certain people have put up pads there. The area hasn’t come back.

“Even Fats Domino, who basically always lived in the Ninth ward, he’s never going home. He lives across the river now. It’s sad to me … he doesn’t even talk to me anymore. He knows I’m gonna get on his case about a lot of things but that’s OK. If he doesn’t go back there maybe he could at least give some of the property to some of his relatives and let them do whatever they need to do.”

When he’s asked, Dr. John says “I don’t look at myself as any particular kind of music. I just look at myself as being a musician.”

What distinguishes the music of New Orleans, then?

“It’s the north end of the Caribbean. I think Jelly Roll Morton said a beautiful thing: ‘It ain’t New Orleans if it don’t have that Latin tinge.’”

He’s known for his hats. How many does he have? He doesn’t know.

“I keep certain ones on the road so they don’t get messed up too bad. One of my mothers-in-law told me, ‘always keep a hat on your head.’ When they told me something it was always on the money.” So he listened and he learned.

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