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by Mike McGuirk

March 8, 2012

James Booker: The Piano Wizard of New Orleans

by Mike McGuirk  |  March 8, 2012

New Orleans has long been pretty much the epicenter of American music. For one thing, jazz literally came from there, and the city's strains of blues, R&B, soul and funk are always likewise unmistakeable. Then there's the long tradition of killer piano players, with names such as Tuts Washington, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Huey "Piano" Smith, Jelly Roll Morton and Dr. John populating the list, all bursting with talent and exuberance. Those guys are fantastic, and you need to hear their music, but the best of the bunch -- the wizard among them -- was the driven, doomed and downright anointed James Booker.

From an early age, Booker had a voracious appetite for the piano, absorbing styles through the ages. This comes through in all the recordings he made, from his early stirrings in the '50s right up to his death in 1983. The stroll, boogie-woogie and stride foundations that make up the music of other New Orleans pianists got turned inside out in his hands, then blown out by high-speed classical vamping before returning to some funky blues base in the space of five seconds. He folded in calypso and ragtime like he was having a fit. It's pretty wild.

On top of this, the dude loved partying. An unrepentant abuser of drugs and alcohol, Booker sang about the downward spiral with straight-up joy. While destroying yourself with drugs is by no means cool or anything less than stupid, his non-victimized, self-possessed take is both rare and refreshing as hell. Still, there is no end to the pathos of this music, and as a gay man in the '50s who was addled by drugs in the '70s, he had plenty to be bummed out about. Still, yet another indicator of his astonishing virtuosity is that even his sad songs are joyous.

Folks new to this guy will want to go to Junco Partner (after listening to the playlist, of course), and acolytes will be glad to know we have the holy trinity of out-of-print Booker albums: The Piano Prince of New Orleans, Blues & Ragtime from New Orleans and Let's Make a Better World! Live in Leipzig.

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