With a brisk and taut stride, Dr. John strolled down a memory lane paved with a distinctly 20th century American songbook, letting a new class in on an old secret: It doesn’t matter when or where a song was composed, this pianist will make it funky.
This New Orleans ambassador, with 40 years of recording under his belt, demonstrated a unique touch on Duke Ellington with an organ-driven jam on “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” from the 1942 film “Cabin in the Sky.” Dr. John turned it into a voluptuous and swampy romp, removing the tune from its uptown gentility and giving it a terroir similar to that of the Southern voodoo-soul classic “I Walk on Gilded Splinters,” which received a marvelous treatment late in the set.
His latest album, the Ellington tribute disc “Duke Elegant” on Blue Note (his last five albums have each been released on a different label), finds him in hit-and-miss mode with the Duke classics. In the first of two sets — the concert was an uptempo 70 minutes — with a three-horn, percussion, guitar and bass backing, he accentuated the positive of the recorded tracks, gleefully sprinting through “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and soloing in the spirit of the original rather than sprinkling it with Mardi Gras confetti.
The swing-blues worked well in a bank of tunes that included Sugarboy Crawford’s NOLA twist on the Bo Diddley beat, “Iko Iko,” and the 1920s standard “My Buddy” from the pen of Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn. Evening closed on a restrained reading of Cyril Neville’s “Brother John,” making it more appropriate for a jazz club than a parade route.
Dr. John and Etta James perfom Sunday at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center.