He says he can’t remember things that happened last year as well as he can some stuff from 50 years ago — like a conversation he had with the subject of his new album, Louis Armstrong.
However, Dr. John had no trouble recounting a night 10 years ago when he played the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis.
“I was on the phone before the show, telling my spouse to get the hell out of New Orleans,” the real-life Mac Rebennack recalled. “It was a very emotional night. A real drag.”
That Aug. 29, 2005, show fell on the night Hurricane Katrina went from bad to catastrophic, wiping out wide swaths of the city that counts Dr. John among its most revered ambassadors.
The mood should be a 180-degree turnaround Saturday when Dr. John returns to town to christen the St. Paul Saints’ new downtown ballpark, CHS Field. Part of the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, his special 3:30 p.m. performance is a tryout for using the midsize stadium as a music venue.
Talking by phone during an East Coast jaunt two weeks ago, Rebennack was surprised to learn that one of the co-owners of the Saints team is actor Bill Murray, with whom he recently finished another kind of gig.
“We were partners in this new ‘Jungle Book’ flick,” he said, referring to voiceover work for an upcoming live-action remake of the Disney classic.
Asked what it was like to work with Murray, the good Doctor gave an emphatic one-word answer in his unmistakably gravel-gritty, swamp-froggy voice: “Easy.” He sprinkled some more colorful words throughout the interview: “acupuncturation” for what keeps him in shape to perform at 74; and “recentarily” during a conversation about Joe Glaser, the manager/agent he shared with Armstrong.
“Joe was managing Louis and Dizzy Gillespie at the same time,” Rebennack recalled of their 1965 meet-up. “I remember all of them days better than some of the stuff that happened recentarily.”
The trumpet-blowing jazz legend and the piano-plunking Rock and Roll Hall of Famer actually grew up in the same neighborhood, the Third Ward, which Dr. John described as “a particular zone of where cool New Orleans stuff was happening.” In Glaser’s office one day, he and Louis reminisced about the old ’hood.
“Joe had a photo that I’ll always remember of Louis playing his trumpet facing Ralph Schultz’s Fresh Hardware Store,” Rebenneck recalled.
“I said, ‘Did you know my pa’s shop was right across the street?’ Louis laughed and said, ‘That guy could give you [license] stickers for your car and marry you and do 20 million different things for you.’ I laughed so hard, because Louis reminded me of all that. He just took me back home.”
Forty years later, the NOLA legends met up for another conversation. Well, sort of.
“He came to me in a dream,” Rebennack recounted with nary a hint of insincerity. “He said, ‘Do my music your way.’ It was a true blessing.”
The dreamland encounter sparked the new album “Ske-Dat-De-Dat … The Spirit of Satch,” featuring 11 of Satchmo’s classics remade with trumpeters Nicholas Payton, Arturo Sandoval, Terence Blanchard and other all-star guests.
Dr. John’s “way” was to spike the songs with New Orleans’ modern gumbo of sounds, from a bluesy “I’ve Got the World on a String” with Bonnie Raitt to a gospel-ized “What a Wonderful World” with Blind Boys of Alabama and a Latin jazzy “Tight Like This” with Sandoval. There’s even a hip-hop-spiked “Mack the Knife” with rapper Mike Ladd, which might alarm some Satchmo purists.
“It’s still in [Armstrong’s] zone,” Rebennack insisted of the rapping. “Whatever’s in that zone is special.”
Much like his hometown hero, Dr. John’s career is going strong into its fifth decade. He enjoyed an upswing with his rock hall induction in 2011, the same year he performed his 1974 album “Desitively Bonnaroo” at the festival named after it. That was followed a year later by the release of his Grammy-winning album “Locked Down.”
Produced by Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, “Locked Down” turned on a new generation of rock fans to Rebennack. Not that he noticed.
Asked if younger fans have been coming out to shows (they have), he replied, “I have no idea.”
“Listen,” he continued with a spark, “we just played New Jersey last night, and the weather was terrible, and everything went bad. And there were still a lot of people there. You just count your blessings anytime you get to play to anyone.”
Another spot-on Dr. John diagnosis.