Dr. John, "Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch" (Concord Music Group)
Many tribute albums fall flat, and star duets can seem forced, but Dr. John manages to avoid these traps in his wonderfully eccentric homage to Louis Armstrong. This is one of New Orleans' finest paying tribute to one of the city's musical founding fathers, and it's as relaxed and joyful as can be.
Instead of a literal, note-by-note re-creation of some of Armstrong's most loved classics, this is a swinging free-for-all, beautifully arranged, with horns that alternately punch and soothe. No one could successfully imitate Armstrong's voice, so the raspy Dr. John and his guests don't even try. The styles are diverse: The Blind Boys of Alabama lend a gospel touch to "What a Wonderful World," Mike Ladd brings a rapper's delight to a remarkable "Mack the Knife" and Cuban songstress Telmary strays far from any Armstrong influence in the sexy, mostly-in-Spanish "Tight Like This."
The almost obligatory duet with Bonnie Raitt on "I've Got the World on a String" avoids cliche with rich vocals and heartfelt, suggestive laughter at the end. She's played this flirty role with others, but makes it sound fresh here. Like many of the vocals, it's delivered with sly wit. Dr. John stays in the background on a number of songs, but his rendering of "That's My Home" evokes the American South and its glories in remarkable depth. The vocal is more comfortable than an old pair of boots, but that's misleading: The arrangement is complex and precise.
Not everything works. A slow version of "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" feels ponderous and the gospel "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" seems out of place despite a rousing performance. But these are the exceptions. This CD works both as a stand-alone piece and a celebration of Armstrong's spirit — the brief final track, "When You're Smiling (The Whole World Smiles With You)," seems like a personal note of thanks to Louis.