the DOCTOR is in…
Poor Hugh Laurie,
Twenty years from now, people will still be going up to him and asking “hey, didn’t you play some grouchy doctor on TV…and why do you have a British accent?”
Sadly, because of this very reason, the fact that he has managed to create in his performance as the misanthropic super-doctor Gregory House an iconic pop culture touchstone that will stand alongside other beloved television characters like The Fonz, Constanza and Jack Bauer for eternity, no one will ever go up to him in twenty years’ time and ask “hey didn’t bring out a couple of albums of great New Orleanais blues-jazz that were as admirable for their virtuosity as they were for their impassioned dedication to a nearly-lost genre of music that holds much historical importance?”.
Which is all the more pity, because Hugh Laurie is very good, as good as he is at imitating an American on TV, on Didn’t It Rain?, his second album of rowdy, but masterfully executed piano-jazz standards
Actors and music, as anyone who has a Jennifer Love Hewitt or Minnie Driver album hidden in the back of their archives will tell you, is a volatile concoction. It doesn’t always work. Reputation for one career will, undoubtedly, overshadow attempts at the other. Critics have already passed on Laurie’s attempts at a musical career, calling him a dilettante overwhelmed by the music and the canon of collaborators he chooses to work with – most notably on Didn’t It Rain: blues icon Taj Mahal – even going as far as attacking his often-clandestine Englishness as a barrier to his ability to interpret authentically this very American art form. Not that all of the criticism would bother Laurie, who, as evidenced on his first album Let Them Talk, has an obvious, unapologetic and real love for the genre, and is a more than competent and intelligent musician.
This collection sees Laurie even more confident and comfortable with second-tier, lesser known blues-jazz standards. By the sounds of things here, he is having a rollicking good time with it all, and isn’t that what matters, whether you’re one of the highest paid TV actors in history, or a teenager in a garage band.
Things get off to an archetypally sombre Orleans start on Didn’t… with the funereal St Louis Blues, a slow march of clarinet melancholy and maudlin guitar picking, evolving quickly into an uppity two-step of brass and piano, as the musical procession nears some celebratory destination, and once there, the saucy tones of soulstress Jean McClain, along with Laurie, warmly invite listeners to the party. The music is full and bombastic, and a great way to start the album. The progression of the songs moves narcotically, from the low quiet moments to ecstatic highs where the music fills every space; most typically and appropriately on Junker’s Blues.
A flitter into tango (“Kiss Of Fire”), a pounding of honky tonk (“Vicksburg Blues”) and then a quick hazy smoke break of cabaret (“Weed Smoker’s Dream”, featuring some near-scandalous vocals by Gaby Moreno, Guatemala’s answer to Norah Jones) the album reaches its first high point: Wild Honey, an old Dr John standard where Laurie genially comes into his own, both as singer and piano player. While no Mac Rebennack, Dr House is also no showboating Harry Connick – undoubtedly the Brad Pitt of piano jazz – and Laurie fits comfortably into the role of grizzled journeyman and storyteller. It’s a part he plays well throughout the rest of the album, never once letting the story overwhelm the journey.
More accurately, read on a meta level, it is never a case of letting the star appeal of Hugh Laurie, TV celebrity, overwhelm the music and band. The ever-consummate band leader, Laurie never lets his ego get in the way of musicians far greater than he could ever be. Dilettante, perhaps, inexperienced, maybe; but the atmosphere created on the album is not of one person presiding over a vanity project, but one similar to a well-versed and enthusiastic fan boy taking a tour of Skywalker Ranch with George Lucas. Respectful, but brimming with interesting, constructive new embellishments.
Highlights in the second half of the album include a sweet, but barbed “Careless Love”, with Laurie doing a fairly admirable early Tom Waits impersonation that doesn’t seem derivative or unholy. Album closer “Changes” attempts the same formula, but with much more gravitas, and can be easily read as a subtly delivered personal manifesto of an artist in limbo (the album was recorded in and around the filming of the final series of House,MD.).
One small criticism is Laurie’s voice, which, considering his much-documented proficiency at mastering the American accent for his TV persona, seems a little forced when singing, with a little too much emphasis on the rolling of the Rs and overstressing syllables to the point of parody. A little niggling, I suppose, on the surface of what is truly a great anthology of music, but it does begin to grate the further one explores the album.
If anything Laurie can be praised for highlighting the often forgotten jazz-blues genre, particularly to fans of his acting work, which may have usually avoided this type of music. His obvious love of the material and the experience in recreating it comes through clearly on the recording, with a crisp tone to the production, that doesn’t attempt to add an overly sophisticated or formulaic modern texture to the music.