Dr John, as a songwriter, singer and pianist, embodies the rich hybrid of New Orleans music as much as any other individual. His fusion of blues, jazz, boogie woogie, Cajun, funk and psychedelic rock is as spicy as jambalaya and as earthy as a Louisiana swamp.
His days of legendary excess in the ’60s and ’70s, when he was known as ‘The Night Tripper’ and dabbled in an almost lethal cocktail of drugs, alcohol and voodoo, are long gone. These days he is on the straight and narrow, and this is reflected in his music which is now much more mainstream.
In 2000 Dr John recorded an album of Duke Ellington songs called Duke Elegant. In Mercernary he has covered songs by the highly successful Johnny Mercer (hence the punning title), who is included in the “Great American Songbook” of standards from the 1930s to 1950s, though he is better known for his lyrics than his music. Only two songs on this album were written by Mercer alone.
The album is surprisingly good, with Dr John in fine form vocally and on the piano, backed by a tight band and crisply produced by himself. It has a mellow, chilled out feel to it which belongs more to a cocktail bar than a blues club but it manages to be smooth without being bland.
The opening track Blues In The Night (one of four here that Mercer co-wrote with Harold Arlen) begins as a slow acoustic country blues with the good doctor moaning away, then moves up-tempo when the whole band including horn section joins in.
Songs like Personality or Lazy Bones (co-written with Hoagy Carmichael) have a delightfully sleazy sound with Dr John’s languid drawl and a wailing sax, while You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby, Dream and the famous Moon River (co-written with Henry Mancini) are more romantically wistful.
That Old Black Magic has a distinctly rumba rhythm, with samba featuring in I’m an Old Cow Hand, one of two instrumentals which allow Dr John to display a bit more piano virtuosity, though he has hardly stretched himself on this album.
The last two songs are not by Mercer – indeed the Dr John-penned I Ain’t No Johnny Mercer (with the amusing lines “For better or for worser, I ain’t no Johnny Mercer”), with its trademark driving bluesy beat, makes a modest but strong case for his own distinctive style of music-making.
Overall, Mercernary is polished rather than pulsating, relaxed rather than raunchy, but after all he has been through in his rollercoaster life, Dr John is fully entitled to take it a bit easy now he is in his mid-sixties. However, his still inimitably expressive smoky voice continues to evoke the milieu of seedy saloon bars in downtown New Orleans.