Dr. John Has A New Album, "Locked Down,” And Tribute To Louis Armstrong.

Dr. John
For decades Dr. John, the New Orleans pianist and songwriter, has stubbornly inhabited the psychedelic voodoo stage persona he created in the late 1960s. He still walks around with an African staff adorned with totems, bones, an alligator tooth, a vial full of a friend’s ashes and a juju bag.

Dr. John and his African staff. He is in residence at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But at 71, when many musicians might be cashing in on nostalgia tours or eyeing retirement, Dr. John appears to be stepping outside of that persona, both personally and professionally. He has an ambitious new album, “Locked Down” (Nonesuch), a collaboration with Dan Auerbach, the singer and guitarist from the popular blues-rock duo the Black Keys. And this weekend he begins a three-week residency at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a series of nine concerts intended to celebrate his contribution to American music over six decades.

To hear him tell it, the album and the concerts mesh with his recent effort to set his life in order after years of reckless living. He says an important part of that is making amends to his children, whom he neglected because he was a traveling piano man. (“Locked Down,” due out on Tuesday, is dedicated to his 11 children and grandchildren.)

“I seem to have lost sight of some things and I’m revamping myself,” he said this week during a conversation in the lounge of a TriBeCa hotel. “One of my defects is I get caught up in so many things that I neglect certain things. I just don’t want to neglect my children no more.”

Mr. Auerbach, 33, said one of his goals in producing the album was to persuade Dr. John to let his mask slip and to create songs about Mac Rebennack, his real self. “Sometimes, when you are a character, I think it can be draining emotionally and personally,” Mr. Auerbach said during an interview in the East Village. “And Mac as a human has so much to say and so many real-life experiences. I wanted the music of Dr. John and the lyrical content of Mac Rebennack.”

Dr. John said Mr. Auerbach had created a rough-edged sound during 17 intense days of recording in Nashville last fall. “He pushed and pulled me in some ways that made something different happen,” Dr. John said. “He’s an aware little cat.”

The album is a departure for Dr. John, who on recent records has stuck close to the mix of New Orleans jazz, funk and soul that he has mined since the 1970s. But “Locked Down” sounds raw, with staccato songs set to urgent, turbulent grooves, their beats drawing as much from African pop music as from American R&B.

Dr. John also stays away from his trademark barrelhouse piano on most tracks, playing a Farfisa organ instead. He sings in his raspy growl about the wages of living a wild life, about his experiences in prison and about being shot, and about his sorrow over being an absent father.

“When you are in the games I was in my life, confusement abounds,” he said. “You leave your children in the middle of a lot of mess.”

The record has an African flavor beyond the rhythms. When Mr. Auerbach first approached Dr. John in 2010 about doing an album, he played him Ethiopian jazz by the vibraphonist Mulatu Astatke to give him an idea of the otherworldly keyboard sounds he was after. “I wanted it not to be a throwback album,” Mr. Auerbach said. “I wanted young people to hear it and fall for this stuff, not in a retro way.”

He then recruited young musicians steeped in African pop. They were anchored by the German drummer Max Weissenfeldt, who specializes in Ethiopian and Afro-pop beats, and the bassist Nick Movshon, a New Yorker who has mastered several African styles. They ate Ethiopian food and listened to African jazz during the 10 days in September when they wrote and recorded instrumental tracks at Mr. Auerbach’s studio, Easy Eye Sound.

“It was funny because we were sitting in his studio and we’d be on a roll from eating Ethiopian food and listening to Ethiopian jazz,” Dr. John said, “and then we’d cut something, and it kind of rubbed off. There is a lot of northwest African stuff in there and northeast African stuff, and there is some stuff that reminds me a little bit of Fela Kuti.”

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