Anyone who collects records or CDs will tell you that one of the biggest buzzes for a collector is either finding an obscure or rare album in the most unlikeliest of places. For me this has included, many years ago finding mint editions of rare soul albums in a dark and dank junk shops that I was almost scared to enter for fear I’d never come out. The place looked like something out of a bad horror movie, but I dared enter and came out a while later grinning, carrying an armful of gorgeous, pristine vinyl. Sometimes, it’s backstreet record shops, looking in the bargain bins, and you see something interesting or unusual. Often this works well, and you come out with a box set of some brilliant electric blues, or an album of psychedelic funk. However, it’s not all plain sailing being a crate digger, after all, who would admit to an album of unlistenable free jazz or eery Byzantine chants that spooked everyone who dared listen to it. Okay, I’ll admit to both. They were cheap and looked interesting. 

Another place I picked up an interesting and quite brilliant album was at a Dr. John concert, a number of years ago. I’d long been a fan of the Dr.’s work, so decided to visit his “surgery,” which that time was a concert hall in Glasgow. It was my first Dr. John concert, and he was touring what was a comeback album Anutha Zone. Having heard some of his classics, and much of his new album, everyone left the venue elated, having witnessed the Dr.’s comeback. Stopping by the merchandise stall, I noticed a couple of albums I’d missed, so bought them, without paying much attention to the content. One of these was In A Sentimental Mood, recorded during a fallow period in Dr. John’s career, and which features some great music, which demonstrates a very different side to Dr John, as far away from the psychedelic funk and R&B of his early albums as you could get. 

The eighties hadn’t been kind to Dr. John, it’s best described as a fallow period in a career that spans six decades, starting in 1968 with the classic Gris Gris. This rich vein of form lasted until the mid-seventies, spanning a run of albums that included 1969s Babylon, Remedies in 1970, 197s The Sun, Moon and Herbs, Gumbo in 1972, In the Right Place in 1973 and ended with Desitively Bonnaroo in 1974. All of these album were recorded for Atco, part of Atlantic Records, and feature what I’d call vintage Dr. John. 

After this, Dr. John’s music changed, tending to focus more on blues, R&B and the music of New Orleans. Another ingredient was some of the “standards,” which started to play a part in his concerts. This would be the case in the album this article is about, In A Sentimental Mood. As well as his music changing, Dr. John recorded less, spending more time as a session musician, something he’d always done even during his Atco years. However, this meant he released fewer and fewer albums, with only four albums being released during the eighties. The eighties began with Dr. John Plays Mac Refennack Volume 1 in 1981, with Dr John Plays Mac Refennack Volume 2 following in 1983. Six years passed without another Dr. John album, until 1989, when two albums were released ZuZu Man and In A Sentimental Mood. 

After recording for a variety of smaller labels, In A Sentimental Mood saw Dr. John recording for a major label, Warner Bros. The sessions for the album took place in two prestigious recording studios, The Power Station in New York, and Los Angeles’ Ocean Way Studio. With a full string and horn section, and a tight band in tow, Dr. John recorded some classic songs from yesteryear, including Makin’ Whoopee, Accentuate the Positive and Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying. These songs, and other classics, which feature on On In A Sentimental Mood, are reinterpreted by Dr. John as he gives them his own unique twist. 

In A Sentimental Mood opens with a song that will be familiar to most people, Makin’ Whoopee. It’s given the big band treatment by Dr John, slowed right down, and given a jazzy twist. Rickie Lee Jones sings the female part, as Dr John gives this old classic a new twist. With horns a blazing and drums pounding slowly, the song opens, giving way to Dr John’s tinkling piano. It’s only then that his raspy vocal enters, and you can almost imagine him singing the mildly suggestive lyrics with a big smile on his face. When Rickie Lee enters, her voice is sweet and coy, a real contrast to the Dr’s raspy, more powerful voice. Behind them, the strings sweep and horns rasp and blaze, the tempo slow, the sound powerful and swinging. Add to that the rhythm section, especially the drums, which play an important part in the track, and you’ve heard another very different of Dr. John, one that’s as far removed from the psychedelic, R&B and funk fusion of his early albums as you can possibly get. This very different and quite brilliant sound, is a welcome return to form for Dr. John, one that hints at later albums, when he’d cover classic by Duke Ellington and Johnny Mercer.

When you hear Dr. John’s version of Candy there’s only one man that springs to mind, Ray Charles. Indeed, in the sleeve notes to the album, Dr. John gives credit to Ray Charles and Charles Brown for their inspiration. This smoky sounding cover is a fitting testament and tribute to one of the giants of music. The tempo is slow, rasping horns and lush strings sweep and swirl as Dr. John gives a beautiful and heartfelt rendition of the lyrics. His piano playing is sparse and jazz tinged, and when he and the piano drop out, the strings take his place. Here, the horns play second fiddle to the strings, with the strings key to the gorgeous sound. Of course, the other key ingredient is Dr. John’s rasping vocal. Later a saxophone solo drifts above the arrangement, the rest of the horns playing with a subtly. Marty Paich’s arrangement of the strings and horns is stunning, and plays an important part in making this such a great song.

Johnny Mercer becomes the latest of the great songwriters Dr. John pays tribute to, on one of the best known songs he wrote, Accentuate the Positive. Later, Dr. John would record a whole album of Johnny Mercer’s music, Mercernary. This was just an amuse-bouche of what was to come, with high kicking horns almost marching through the track, accompanying the Dr.’s gruff, rough and rocking vocal. He really gets the song swinging, after a slow and somewhat thoughtful introduction, where a meandering piano solo gives way to his earthy vocal. It’s only after that, that the song unfolds, transforming into a swinging, rocking number with the piano at the forefront and those high kicking horns rasping and adding drama. The combination of piano, horns and Dr. John is a potent and swinging one, that gets even better when a saxophone solo blows gloriously, as the song heads towards dramatic crescendo.

One of the most beautiful songs on the album is My Buddy, co-written by Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson. This song has a lovely, understated lush arrangement, with strings playing a major roll, while horns play a supporting roll. It’s just Dr. John with his trusty piano that opens the track, with cymbals hissing gently in the background. When the strings enter, they’ve the lushest sound, a perfect accompaniment for Dr. John’s thoughtful vocal and piano playing. Behind him a bass meanders, with the strings and later, gently rasping horns entering. Together, they produce a poignant and quite melancholy sound, one that

The songwriting credits for In A Sentimental Mood read like a who’s who of the greatest American songwriters of the first half of the twentieth century, with Duke Ellington, Irvin Mills and Manny Kurtz co-writing the title track In A Sentimental Mood. Again, Dr. John would return to Duke Ellington, recording an album of his best songs, entitled Duke Ellington. Like the previous track, it benefits from an understated arrangement, with the piano and lovely, lush strings combining as the track meanders along. It’s a song from a different age, gentle and beautiful, as it slowly reveals itself. A few jazzy flourishes from the piano accompany the swathes of strings that float above. During the song, Dr. John’s piano playing is among the best on the album, as is Marty Paich’s string arrangement. Together with producer Tommy Lipuma, they combine to produce a beautiful, piano lead track, that features swathes of the lushest strings, and is the perfect way to end side one of the album.

Side two of In A Sentimental Mood opens with Black Night, and the Dr. upping the tempo, on a song written by Jessie Mae Robinson. Dramatic flourishes of piano and braying horns combine as the song opens, with Dr. John demonstrating his talent and versatility as a pianist. When his vocal enters, it’s a downbeat and despondent Dr. we hear, as horns rasp and a beefy bass makes its presence felt. The arrangement is full, and drama laden, horns swirling grandly, while the rhythm more than section play their part in the song’s success. By now, Dr. John’s raspy voice is powerful, regret and sadness his only friends. As the arrangement reverberates, a combination of jazz players new and modern, including drummer Harvey Mason and bassist Abe Laboriel play their part in helping Dr. John give an old song a new magical new twist.

One of the saddest songs on the album is a version of Joe Greene’s Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying. As sad strings swirl in, flourishes of dramatic piano, give way to an equally sad vocal from the Dr. With chiming guitars, strings and piano combining, the song meanders along, flourishes of piano escaping, while a butter and rueful Dr. delivers the lyrics. The arrangement taps into perfectly into the sadness of the lyrics, which have a melancholy, and almost bittersweet quality. Again the arrangement has a somewhat understated sound, relying on the strings, instead of horns. This works well, getting across perfectly the sadness and emotion in the lyrics, especially when combined with such a great vocal as Dr. John’s.

When you talk about the greatest American songwriters of the first half of the twentieth century, then you can’t not mention Cole Porter. Similarly, Dr. John couldn’t record an album featuring some of the greats of American songwriting and not cover a Cole Porter song. The one he chose was Love For Sale, choosing to transform the track, with some of his best piano playing on the album. Here he veers between some rollicking jazzy piano playing with flourishes of drama included, while strings sweep and swirl grandly, their sound vaguely reminding me of a movie soundtrack, while horns rasp and blaze, reverberating and the rhythm section provide a light sprinkling of funk. It’s a track that absolutely swings, and has an irresistible sound. Towards the end, Dr. John almost raps over the arrangement, a brilliant track, just getting even better.

In A Sentimental Mood ends with More Than You Know, which opens with the saddest of string, which have a real retro sound, in keeping with music. They give way to an equally sad and thoughtful vocal from the Dr. with his piano meandering and tinkling along. He delivers the lyrics perfectly, with a tenderness and thoughtfulness, sadness tinging his voice. Above him, sits the strings, which float in and out of the arrangement, with Harvey Mason playing the drums with subtlety, forsaking sticks for bushes. Similarly, the bass meanders, the playing sparse, leaving flourishes of Dr. John’s piano playing and his thoughtful vocal to take centre-stage, on what was a tender, beautiful and heartfelt delivery of the lyrics. This  thoughtful and somewhat poignant and melancholy song seems the perfect way to end the album.

For anyone who has only experienced the music of Dr. John’s vintage Atco years, the music on In A Sentimental Mood will come as something of a surprise when they hear it. That was how I felt when I first heard the album, but from the first song I was hooked, and since then, it remains one of my favorite Dr. John albums. If I ever meet anyone who says they don’t like Dr. John because they for some reason don’t like his early music, I win them round by playing them In A Sentimental Mood. That introduces them to a very different side of his music. Then I slowly introduce them to other albums that aren’t typical of his music, before trying the vintage Atco era Dr. John on them. Usually I win them round. On In A Sentimental Mood Dr. John demonstrates how his music was changing, and the two albums that he released in 1981 and 1983 Dr John Plays Mac Refennack Volume 1 and 2, gave us a hint the direction his music was heading in. This album of covers with string and horn section in tow, saw Dr. John brilliantly cover and sometimes, transform old standards, breathing new life and energy into them, as gives them his own unique twist. Since then, his music has continued to evolve, with recent albums rediscovering the music of Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer and the wonderful music of New Orleans. Throughout his career, Dr. John has been an innovator, never afraid to try something new, sometimes, even becoming a contrarian. However, he’s always provided his many fans with some majestic and memorable music, which they’ll always cherish, and return to. if you’ve never heard Dr. John’s music, there’s plenty of great music available, with Rhino releasing five of his best Atco albums as part of their Original Album Series. Along with that, I’d recommend 1995s The Very Best of Dr. John which features his Atco era music, while 2005s The Best of The Parlophone Years focuses on some of his later work, from his 1998 “comeback” album Anutha Zone onwards. Add to this the brilliant In A Sentimental Mood and you’ll be the proud owner of some of the best music of Dr. John’s long and distinguished career. Standout Tracks: My Buddy, In A Sentimental Mood, Black Night and Love For Sale.


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