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03/18/14

James Booker
Classified: Remixed and Expanded
Rounder

Before listening to Classified, the album that many consider New Orleans pianist James Booker’s finest, it’s helpful to know the backstory. Co-producer Scott Billington details that tale in the liner notes accompanying this reissue: how in 1982 he had approached the perennially troubled and notoriously difficult Booker and his management about recording, only to be confronted for months by one delay after another. Sometimes Booker was in jail; other times he was behaving rather bizarrely.

Listening now to the expanded-length results—the remixed reissue nearly doubles the content—it’s remarkable not only that it came out at all but that Booker pulled himself together to cut such a masterful work. As quintessential a NOLA pianist as Professor Longhair or Fats Domino, Booker’s command of his instrument is never less than awe inspiring, whether taking on a rock and roll classic (“Hound Dog”), a country hit (“King of the Road”), a Tin Pan Alley standard (“Baby Face”) or even classical music (his technique on “Warsaw Concert” is jaw-dropping).

Alternating between solo piano pieces (some with his shrill vocals, others instrumental) and tunes on which he’s accompanied by Alvin “Red” Tyler on tenor saxophone, James Singleton on bass and Johnny Vidacovich playing drums, Booker delights in taking off on unexpected pathways. Whether keeping to a simple blues or boogie pattern (his “Lonely Avenue,” the Doc Pomus ballad, is minimal but arresting) or showboating (his thoroughly New Orleanian take on “Theme From the Godfather”), Booker was at the top of his game once he actually sat down at the piano.

Originally published in March 2014
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