Mitch's new album is called A Tip of the Hat to Fats, but it’s far more than a tribute to the late rock ’n’ roll granddaddy Fats Domino. With a wide embrace of styles, high-flying performances, and a song list that also includes Professor Longhair, Wynonie Harris, Jackie Brenstonand Woods himself, these nine tunes — each with a buoyant introduction by the singer, pianist and bandleader — perfectly spotlight his upbeat virtuosity. The album will be released by Blind Pig Records via The Orchard on April 19, 2019.
“I’m an entertainer, and there’s nowhere I’d rather be than at a festival playing and singing the music I love and making people happy,” Woods relates. “Onstage is where I flourish. The music I love and the songs I write in the spirit of that music domake people dance and laugh. It all comes from the era of the late 1940s through the early ’50s — a soundtrack of jump swing, blues, New Orleans music and early rock ’n’ roll, and I love to go right to the roots of it.”
For Woods, those roots extend to his childhood in New York City, when he first heard boogie-woogie piano and fell for the sound and the instrument. And they’re delightfully exposed in A Tip of the Hat to Fats, which captures a percolating live performance at the 2018 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. The Crescent City holds a special place in Woods’ heart, and since his first trip there in 1981, the sounds that still resonate in the Big Easy’s boulevards and bar rooms — from the echoes of foundational artists like Domino and Fess that linger in today’s music to the daily parade of brass bands and Mardi Gras krewes that fill the streets — have become an important part of his musical evolution.
Those sounds drive the album’s version of one of Woods’ most popular tunes, “Mojo Mambo,” like a V-8 Caddy on a racetrack. He turns the song into a hip-swiveling invocation by putting his spin on one of Professor Longhair’s patented melody-and-rhythm riffs with authority and taste. And his handpicked band of veteran New Orleans musicians is the perfect ensemble to support him here and on the rest of the album. The group includes baritone saxist Roger Lewis of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Allen Toussaint sidemen Amadee Castenell and Brian “Breeze” Cayolle on tenor saxes, Jon Cleary, bassist Cornell Williams, Dr. John guitarist John Fohl, and Tab Benoit and Ani DiFrancodrummer Terence Higgins. He’s also taken a version of this band around the world, playing festivals under the nameMitch Woods’ Big Easy Boogie.
Together, Woods and his krewe take this concert recording through a series of musical apexes, including a pair of tunes associated with Domino: “Blue Monday,” written by classic-Domino-singles producer and New Orleans legendDave Bartholomew, and the Fats-penned “Walking to New Orleans.” Woods handles both numbers with soul and swagger, gently swinging while he propels the arrangements with his left hand, turning back time to the earliest days of rock ’n’ roll — when the piano and the horn, not the guitar, were the style’s main instrumental voices.
With the final track on A Tip of the Hat to Fats, “The House of Blue Lights,” he turns the clock back even further — to 1946, when the number was first cut by jump-swing singer Ella Mae Morse, and to the very roots of boogie-woogie piano. But as with all of his performances, Woods brings his own joyous energy to the fore in his playful asides and brightly chiming improvisations on the ivories.
In a sense, A Tip of the Hat to Fats iss a sequel to two of Woods’ earlier releases: 2010’s Gumbo Blues and 2008’s DVD/CD package Big Easy Boogie. The former was a tribute to the legendary New Orleans blues and soul shouterSmiley Lewis, and includes Lewis’ biggest hit “I Hear You Knockin’” and well as a studio version of “Blue Monday.” And Big Easy Boogie was a dream project for Woods, who enlisted Bartholomew as producer and drafted original Fats Domino band members Herb Hardesty on sax and Earl Palmer on drums. Woods also commissioned a film of the historic sessions and a subsequent concert featuring the album’s players at the 2002 Jazz & Heritage Festival. Altogether, the globetrotting Woods has played the event five times and considers it his favorite festival. The 2018JazzFest, as the annual series of concerts is known, was in part a tribute to Domino, who had died five months before.
It’s been 35 years since Woods made his debut album, Steady Date, which also appeared on the Blind Pig label. By then he was already a popular, hard-touring artist on the blues circuit, building a repertoire of his own songs as well as classics borrowed from the masters who fueled his musical passions.