When Dr. John, aka Mac Rebennack, mapped out his new CD "N'Awlinz: Dis Dat or d'Udda," he obviously had a dream team in mind: lots of Crescent City musicians, a mix of blues, soul and country heavyweights, even a kindred pop spirit or two. Apparently no one turned down the invite.
Chockablock with cameos, including showcases for Mavis Staples, B.B. King, Willie Nelson, Randy Newman, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the Mardi Gras Indians, "N'Awlinz" is both a celebration of hometown sounds and an extended family affair. When the collaborations click, they contribute to a wonderfully atmospheric collage of Big Easy themes and grooves. When they don't, the blame usually rests with high-profile artists who seem out of sync with the surroundings.
Not surprisingly, the album's highlights frequently find Rebennack playing alongside friends from the old neighborhood. They move in spirit from the church to the graveyard, from epic folk tales to "second line" parade struts, from brassy evocations of 1920s trombonist Kid Ory and trumpeter Louis Armstrong to a densely percussive homage to voodoo queen Marie Laveau.
One needn't read Rebennack's outlandish liner notes, riddled with references to "delicato fonk," "impossible drummin' " and "another universe of stringisms," to realize that he's getting a big kick out of the company he's keeping here; there's no mistaking his joy. That's particularly true midway through the disc when he segues from two original tunes (the album's clever title track and the Mardi Gras anthem "Chickee le Pas") to "The Monkey," a classic Dave Bartholomew novelty. The musicians on these three cuts include singers Cyril Neville and Eddie Bo, the great "second line" drummer Earl Palmer, keyboardist Willie Tee and the Mardi Gras Indians, Together, they produce a homegrown sound that's hard to resist. Another treat featuring Palmer is "Stakalee," Rebennack's highly embellished and vibrantly syncopated account of the Staggerlee legend. Elsewhere, guitarists Snooks Eaglin and Walter "Wolfman" Washington add more local color.
But the tone isn't always upbeat. After the album opens with the Caribbean-tinged ballroom reverie "Quatre Parishe," Mavis Staples makes her mighty presence felt on "When the Saints Go Marching In," which unfolds at a dirgelike pace, and "Lay My Burden Down," which places her raspy alto against a backdrop of blaring horns, parade beats and gospel harmonies. On both tracks, she's in fine, fervent form.
A pair of evocative mood shifts follow. "Marie Laveau," with its mystical narrative and unearthly harmonies, vividly recalls Rebennack's hippie-era incarnation as Dr. John, the Night Tripper. "Dear Old Southland," the only duet on the album, is almost quaint by comparison, offering a tenderly nostalgic jazz diversion. On it, Nicholas Payton raises his trumpet in Armstrong's honor while Rebennack devises an old-fashioned piano accompaniment.
There's a lot of humor in "N'Awlinz," too, especially when Randy Newman and Rebennack team up on the rollicking "I Ate Up the Apple Tree." Newman does double duty -- in addition to singing, he offers a running commentary on the tune's biblical genesis -- and the result is entertainingly silly.
On the other hand, Willie Nelson's contribution to "You Ain't Such a Much" is meager. Badly miscast, he musters a lifeless croon. B.B. King makes for a much better fit on "Hen Layin' Rooster," but neither he nor Nelson nor Rebennack can prevent the Louis Jordan tune "Time Marches On" from plodding on. Of course, the presence of Nelson and King will heighten the album's commercial prospects, but the best sections of "N'Awlinz" present Rebennack and his lesser-known chums in their natural element, exuding plenty of indigenous spirit and soul.
Dr. John is at Wolf Trap on Aug.29.