Dr. John and Jimmy Scott usher in summer at MoCA
by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., June 2, 2002) – A large, enthusiastic crowd packed the outdoor concert courtyard on a picture-perfect evening on Saturday that ushered in this summer’s performing arts series at Mass MoCA with a doubleheader featuring New Orleans music master Dr. John and legendary jazz singer Jimmy Scott.

Each performer came with a virtuosic ensemble and both reached moments of transcendence in their respective sets. Both artists, however, got bogged down by poor pacing and uninspired set lists – an odd development for two professionals who between them boast a century’s worth of experience in show business.

Jimmy Scott kicked off the evening with an electrifying version of the Billie Holiday standard, “All of Me.” Scott’s stark, soprano voice initially shocks a listener with its ghostly, haunted quality, made moreso by its lightness and the manner in which Scott places isolated syllables in the air, where they just float, seemingly hanging there of their own accord.

Scott was a dramatic performer, making full use of physical gestures like raising his arms, as if they provided extra ballast for the delicate wisps of notes he projected. His phrasing was minimalist to the point of deconstruction; his storytelling was emotional rather than literal, as he broke down words and phrases into subliteral units that overrode their verbal contents in favor of pure music. His band, particularly pianist Jon Regen, responded with tastefully minimalist accompaniment, although the musicians were each given a moment in the spotlight.

Scott’s set included poignant ballads and upbeat swing tunes, mostly safe choices like “Pennies from Heaven.” What it didn’t do, however, was penetrate much below the surface. This may have been a function of its brevity. Scott only performed for 45 minutes – perhaps due to a late start prompted by a delayed arrival – and as a result maybe he didn’t have the time to take the audience to that deeper, richer place, a place of triumph over darkness and pain and of which he is the bard.

A different problem plagued Dr. John’s set. True, it had its high points. The opening number, the New Orleans staple “Iko, Iko,” offered great promise that this would be a great party, with the pianist’s voice in fine form, all elastic and gluey with his trademark crackles. A few numbers lived up to its promise, including “Mardi Gras Day” and the soulful “One 2 A.M. Too Many,” one of several tunes he did by the late, great songwriter Doc Pomus. And the crowd erupted with fervor when he launched into his greatest hit, “Right Place, Wrong Time.”

But Dr. John’s set was marred by erratic pacing and odd song choices. He introduced several instrumentals as Duke Ellington numbers, but one was hard put to find the Ellington buried within the generic organ-jazz arrangements. And although he was surrounded by good musicians, Dr. John surrendered too much time and space to them to stretch out with jams out of the Santana playbook, resulting in lost focus and lost momentum.

By the time Dr. John brought out Scott for a clumsily-staged finale that had the singer reading the lyrics of “Georgia on My Mind” off of sheet music and Dr. John relegated to the role of backup organist, the spark that had kicked off the show had almost completely fizzled.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on June 4, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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