When the ‘Bayou Maharajah’s’ piano pyrotechnics warmed up audiences in Cold War Europe.
James Booker ★★★★ Behind The Iron Curtain Plus… RWA. CD/DL
MEMORABLY DESCRIBED by Dr. John as “the best black, gay, oneeyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced,” James Carroll Booker III was a spectacular oneoff; a flamboyant, eyepatch-wearing maverick with a permanent limp who dubbed himself the “Bronze Liberace”. His jaw-dropping virtuosity allowed him to mash up classical music, jazz, blues, ragtime and gospel with a blend of consummate ease and outrageous flair. For a man of such prodigious talent, Booker’s studio output was surprisingly meagre, though thankfully live recordings abound. Perhaps none are quite as potent or compelling as the three concerts featured in this superbly annotated 5-CD retrospective capturing him alone on-stage in 1976-1977, taking the rambunctious free spirit of decadent New Orleans into the totalitarian heart of communist East Germany.
At the time of his ’70s European sojourn, Booker, who scored a Top 3 US R&B hit with the soul-jazz instrumental Gonzo in 1962, seemed to be getting a career back on track that had been derailed for many years by heroin addiction. His resurrection began in 1973 when he appeared on Ringo Starr’s Ringo album, and then in quick succession contributed to LPs by the Doobie Brothers, Maria Muldaur and LaBelle. Confirming Booker’s rebirth, in 1976, Island Records released Booker’s Joe Boyd-produced studio album Junco Partner, which resulted in the pianist being invited to tour Europe by promoter Norbert Hess, a blues fan from West Berlin who had met Booker in New Orleans in 1975. It’s thanks to Hess that 47 years later, we can now hear what Booker sounded like at what was arguably the apex of his talent.
Just a few minutes into the first CD, you can appreciate why Booker has been hailed as a genius. His bluesy, anguished singing voice is hauntingly distinctive but it’s his percussive piano playing, defined by a flamboyant, untamed romanticism, that astounds. Drawing on influences as varied as Beethoven and Jelly Roll Morton, Booker creates pocket piano symphonies using a unique cross-cultural sonic language characterised by pulsating polyrhythms and lushly sculpted filigrees. The way he seamlessly switches styles is mesmerising; at one point, he plays a brief snippet of Beethoven’s delicate Für Elise which then morphs into an original New Orleans-style blues stomp called One Helluva Nerve. Another shapeshifting gem is Blue Minute Waltz, a jazzed-up classical piece that suggests Booker was the missing link between Chopin and Professor Longhair.
Booker once stated that his musical aim was “bridging the gap between classical music and the blues and ragtime and every other form of music” – and here, with these spectacular performances, he certainly achieves that goal. “I think I’m going to light up the curtain tonight,” he tells the audience at East Berlin’s Haus Der Junger Talente, patently underestimating his power as he proceeds to tear down the cultural wall separating the East from the West.