James Booker's late '70s concert swings through Europe were heavily recorded, so at first glance, Live At Montreux could be just another dispensable live CD, but it definitely adds something to the New Orleans pianist's discography. Several songs make their first (or only) appearance on a Booker disc, the liner notes by New Orleans figures are very informative and include extensive quotes from Booker himself, along with festival producer Claude Nobs, who is credited as executive producer, and insists the album is not of bootleg sound quality. But the "Pretty Baby"/"Winin' Boy Blues" "medley" is a 40-second opening teaser, and "Tipitina" is a minute-plus intro for "The Grass Looks Greener," so don't buy it to hear those songs because you won't.
Booker is in good humor, under control, and the opening solo piano section is excellent, as "Pixie" starts off rollicking, and the medley with previously unrecorded takes on the Beatles' "Penny Lane" and "I Saw Her Standing There" is a great example of his audacious between-songs connections. His embellishments to "Penny Lane" give the melody an emotional resonance you may never have heard before, and then he locks down a stabbing rhythm for a vocal romp through "I Saw Her Standing There" before tinkling octave shifts segue into his repertoire staple on "One Hell Of A Nerve." It's Booker the old-school songster/piano man at his best, and a pretty exceptional treatment of "True" demonstrates just how much deep blues feeling he can get before taking it out with high drama chords.
"The Long Last Laugh" brings on the backing trio with Booker in high-stepping boogie bluesman mode. Cash McCall gets a "yeah" out of Booker for his spare guitar fills during the descending minor key progression to "Look What I've Got," and "Junco Partner" is just fine with a strong backbeat and McCall answering Booker's vocals.
There's no doubt the band tracks aren't as strong -- you might even call the rhythm section pedestrian in another context, but they know the score and stay out of the way. The sameness of the backing only begins to get tiresome on "Papa Was A Rascal," and there's not enough time left for it to matter -- after another mercurial transition to the bouncy New Orleans R&B of "Let's Make A Better World." A series of Woody Woodpecker piano trills wraps it up.
Live At Montreux is a good CD, if not a great one, but the Booker-as-genius-cult will tell you it revolves around brilliant piano moments as much as the whole, and there are enough of both here. Like the way he suddenly leaps octaves in his solo to "One Hell Of A Nerve" to play spidery right hand trills that roll down and back up scales and leave you shaking your head and wondering how on earth did he think of that?
Sorry, you'll have to indulge me here but my Booker-as-genius revelation story came from sitting in the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans one Jazz Fest Monday night in the early '80s when he was spinning off a series of simply amazing improvised lines. Every now and then, a tantalizing hint of chord structure or naggingly familiar melodic fragment surfaced and I was really primed to finally find out what song had inspired Booker to launch into these wonderful flights of creative fancy.
And you know what it was?
If that ain't a definition of genius, I don't know what is.