Professor Longhair

Fess' Gumbo

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Fess' Gumbo is kind of an odd duck, a 1980 session originally recorded for Canadian radio and claimed here as Professor Longhair's last-ever recording session. It mixes interview segments with just his piano tracks alone, although some (maybe even all) were recorded with his band playing along but with the tape only rolling on the keyboard. (You can very faintly hear horns and snatches of singing bleed into the mics on a few tracks).

Obviously the objective was to focus on his piano style and you can hear it clearly, but since Longhair was always a featured artist, his playing was never exactly buried on his other recordings. The other thing is that he was always a bandman who played parts and improvised during set solo passages. "Whole Lotta Loving" locks into the riffs but it lacks the sort of fancy filigrees and embellishments that a true solo player -- James Booker and Dr. John, to cite two Longhair disciples -- would casually toss off and into their improvisations.

Naturally, "Tipitina" is wonderful, since that song could go on forever and never get boring, but while the playing gets more interesting on the later pieces, the piano work is actually kind of mild-mannered here. The interview segments are fairly stock but informative enough, be it detailing family history and early musical roots, the genesis of his name, or his rediscovery during the '70s that broadly hints at his card shark survival technique to provide for his family during the hard times.

Fess' Gumbo accomplishes its objective well enough, but there's no bombshell revelation or anything to warrant choosing this disc over most of his regular recordings with his band. If you're looking to get real deep into Professor Longhair's technique and want revelation, find Stevenson J. Palfi's video Piano Players Rarely Play Together. That invaluable documentary of Longhair, Tuts Washington, and Allen Toussaint has priceless footage of Fess explaining his style and ripping through some trademark licks with a nonchalant ease that's absolutely mind-boggling.

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