Picks and Pans Review: 'fess
updated 01/17/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 01/17/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST
Professor Longhair's music is one of the Western world's great antidotes to low spirits. Pianist-singer Henry Roeland Byrd of New Orleans ("Professor" is a Crescent City honorific bestowed on piano hotshots, and Byrd wore his hair slicked back over the collar) died al 61 in 1980. Ignored for most of his career, he survived to see himself hailed as a rock and roll pioneer. If his synthesis of boogie-woogie piano, marching-band beats, Mardi Gras chants and Caribbean rhythms could only have been effected in New Orleans, his sound—he called it "rhumba-boogie"—was all his own.
Fess, as his friends called him, fixed his repertoire early and spent the rest of his life reworking it. Disc One (of two CDs) introduces the canon—"Tipitina," "Bald Head," "Go to the Mardi Gras" and others; this is early, unadorned Fess, alone or with small groups. The old ('50-'64) tracks may be low-fi, but they're also pure magic. Disc Two covers the years after Fess's '71 rediscovery, and with the Professor's piano augmented by riffing horns, it explodes. Unfamiliar with the man New Orleans pianist-composer Allen Toussaint once dubbed the Bach of Rock? Here's your chance to change that—unless you've got something against smiling. (Rhino)