Monday, February 19, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #199 - James Booker - Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah

It’s 1982. Let’s say you’re visiting New Orleans and you want to get out of the touristy French Quarter, past the scammers telling you they know where you got your shoes and into some less dressed up version of the city. Maybe you find yourself heading a little bit west to the Uptown neighborhood of Carrollton and you drop into the legendary Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street. Maybe you weren’t even planning to do it, but the sounds of a piano spilling out into the street and a wild, high, bluesy voice drew you in. And there, inside the small and loosely crowded bar, a vocally enthusiastic crowd is swinging, clapping, and snapping to the loopy rhythms of a skinny man with an eye patch seated at the piano. That man, you find out, is James Booker, and he’s been the house pianist here from the mid-70s until today.

Asking around a bit you find out that he is, to be kind, a bit of an eccentric with a widely-acknowledged drug problem. Sometimes he’ll stop mid-song and stare forward at something nobody else can see, sometimes he won’t touch the piano but will sit there talking into the mic (much to the consternation of the crowd who are there to hear him play), sometimes he doesn’t show up at all. But tonight he’s there showing off his prodigious, classically-schooled chops and it’s a hot set, bouncing from classics like “Junco Partner” (which he absolutely owns and could’ve written about himself) and “St. James Infirmary” to Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona to Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” in the blink of an eye. And those are just the songs he plays in their entirety; there are also the medleys.

Normally, you’d think, a medley is a showcase meant to edit down familiar hits the artist is tired of playing to satisfy their regular fans. Not so, here - they’re the highlights, with Booker’s broad tastes (and humor, definitely his sense of humor) in full effect as he makes associations that lead him through a nearly 10-minute grouping that hits two Larry Williams tunes, a Stax staple followed by a Motown staple, and then ends on his own “Classified.” The title? - “Medley: Slow Down/Bony Maronie/Knock On Wood/I Heard It Through The Grapevine/Classified.” And it’s a glorious demonstration of his dazzling timing, his vocals that veer from resolutely soulful to a wild yodel, his ornately filigreed piano style, and once again, his timing, with its deep-in-the-pocket funk even when it’s lurching or careening forward at a rocketing tempo. And that crowd, oh, the crowd – they’re with him for every beat, eating right out of the palm of his hand. It’s a masterful way to kick off the album and it rolls right into the seven and a half equally rollicking minutes of “Tico Tico” mixed with Booker’s own terrific “Papa Was A Rascal.” And then it just keeps going for 72 minutes total.

And now it’s 2018. This CD, with every aforementioned performance (and more), was released 25 years ago, collected from over 60 hours of performances recorded on the Maple Leaf’s house system between 1977 and 1982, the year before Booker passed away at only 43. Somewhere in there while playing at the club Booker met Harry Connick Sr. and took a very young Harry Connick Jr. under his wing as a student and protégé, teaching him piano technique, sometimes inviting him up to play alongside him on the piano bench. Dr. John was once heard to describe him as "the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced." And though his recording career was sporadic - a few studio sessions and some live (mostly) European dates interrupted by stretches in jail - Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah (and its nearly-as-good all-instrumental companion piece Spiders on the Keys) showcase Booker’s genius in a succession of high points without the inconsistencies that nearly everyone who talks fondly about Booker notes as a result of his problems with drugs and alcohol. It’s how you can imagine he would be on a good night, and you can easily put yourself right into the Maple Leaf on a warm night in 1982, listening to him masterfully work the keyboard with his over-the-top flourishes skirting right on the edge of absurdity, but somehow keeping it all right in the pocket. It’s a beautiful thing and a great tribute to this troubled genius.

-         Patrick Brown

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