Review: Johnny Mercer Tribute: Tanglewood Jazz Festival

The line-up on Saturday night was one of the most amazing 3 hour line-ups of jazz and blues that could be produced today.  While the first act of the show was "jazz", the second half was, most certainly, the funkiest blues that can be heard by some of the best blues musicians alive today.

After a brief welcome and introduction by WGBH's Eric Jackson, Wynton Marsalis and his Quartet opened with "Free To Be" followed by "Sophie Rose Rosalee".  There is a reason why if you say "I saw Wynton at Tangelwood" people know that you saw greatness.


While giving each of his quartet a solo on each number, Marsalis enthralled.  Wearing his now-trademark, three-piece suit, Wynton was a study in the making of a legend.  The audience at Tanglewood was hypnotized into silence by his playing of "Big Fat Hen" and "Cherokee".

The Shed, on the stately Tanglewoods grounds was temporarily turned into a juke joint when Dr. John and The Lower 9-11 band took the stage.  Over the past year, post-Katrina, Dr. John and his band have become the most visible reminders of New Orleans music and culture.  His insight and experience with New Orlean's rich musical heritage is unmatched.  He shared that music with The Tanglewood Jazz Festival's audience on Saturday night.

Dr. John's musical and personal style is so distinct, that 30 years ago, in 1976 he was the inspiration for "Dr. Teeth" of Jim Henson's Muppets.  He opened his half of the show with "Lay My Burdens Down".    He and the band then moved into songs that he has written about a post-Katrina New Orleans.  After a brief set with the band the actual tribute to Johny Mercer began.

Ann Hampton Callaway was Dr. John's first guest in his tribute to Johnny Mercer.  "The are a lot of Doctors, but none with the bedside manner of Dr. John", Callaway said as she began her two-song set.  She began with a bluesy, belty version of "I'm Gonna Love You" that was a big crowd pleaser.  She then sang a sultry version of "Makin' Whoopie", which was also a terrific performance.

Catherine Russell, whose father was Louis Russell (of the Louis Russell Big Band, which Louis Armstrong fronted), came out next.  In this line-up, she was probably the least known artist.  Not for long.  She opened with a full-thoated rendition of "Moon River". (Was it Marni Nixon who dubbed Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's"?)  Ms. Russell then shared her interpretation of "Juneteenth Jamboree".

John Pizzarelli was the third guest artist.  He opened with "Dream" and Dr. John left his piano, and the band left the stage when he played a guitar solo of "I Thought About You". He closed his set, with Doc and the band back on stage, singing "Satin Doll".

Irma Thomas, who Ann Hampton Callaway describes as "Everything and more", was the final guest on this line-up.  Ms. Thomas was dressed to be noticed, in a flowing white caftan and matching turban. She sang three songs, opening with "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive". Her second song was "Another Lonely Heart"  from her new album "After the Rain".  She closed her mini-set with the Irma Thomas classic "[You Can Have My Husband, but Please Don't] Mess with My Man".  It is the song that Irma Thomas fans demand to hear each time she plays.

The encore was an old-style, revival version reprise of "Lay My Burdens Down".  The audience at the Shed was on their feet as Ann Hampton Callaway, Catherine Russell, John Pizzarelli, Irma Thomas and Wynton Marsalis and his Quartet joined Dr. John and The Lower 9-11 Band.  Each of the artist took turns riffing on the lyrics and playfully one-upping each other musically.  Masalis and Dr. John got their "backfield in motion". There was a gospel-style call and response and Marsalis showed everyone what he could do with a horn.  The encore was one of the most memorable moments that I have ever experienced in a concert setting.  Because the concert was produced as a one-off, it is unlikely that the moment will ever be repeated.  Which is the only disappointing thing I can say about the evening.

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From This Author Randy Rice

Randy Rice currently resides in Providence, RI with his husband Aron. His love affair with live performance began in 1988 when he saw Sammy Davis (read more...)

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