Tribute concerts can be messy affairs but somehow anything Hal Willner touches moves with an ease and grace that seems as if it were guided by angels. Celestial spirits are certainly appropriate for the surprisingly moving Willner-hosted tribute to producer/raconteur Joel Dorn, who passed away last December.
The event at Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park moved briskly through a series of performances and rememberences from a number of Dorn's family members, friends and musicians that he worked with. It struck an often humorous tone, especially during a videotape of Dorn explaining how a secretary at a New Orleans radio station told him how to edit Roberta Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw His Face" for radio play. But the music was the key, an unpredictable mix of funk, pop and blues that reflected Dorn's eclecticism and willingness to experiment.
Flack herself opened the show in one of the night's surprises -- she had an overseas commitment but altered her plans to attend. The 70s funk band Black Heat played together for the first time in 35 years and sounded so tight I wouldn't be surprised if the experience made them give it another try. Kevin Calabro, who worked with Dorn on his latest productions for the 32 Jazz label, offered a particularly moving tribute to his boss. The Persuasions made an unannounced appearance to sing "The 10 Commandments of Love" and longtime Dorn buddy Stewart Levine introduced another surprise guest, Hugh Masakela, who provided one of the musical highlights of the night with a beautiful solo trumpet piece dedicated to Dorn.
New Orleans arranger Wardell Quezergue was supposed to accompany Aaron Neville for a performance of "Mona Lisa," but Neville canceled, the only blemish on the night's lineup. Quezergue showed up anyway, though, and made it onstage in a wheelchair to conduct a recorded version of the song. It was a sweet moment that said plenty about Quezergue's regard for the music.
The performance of the night came from another New Orleans native, Mac Rebennack aka Dr. John, a friend of Dorn's who had turned over an archive of his unreleased recordings for Dorn to release as a special project on his label. Unfortunately only two of those releases made it out before Dorn passed and the series is now on hold.
"Jo-el wanted me to record this song," said Mac, before playing a soulful solo interpretation of "April Showers" completely stripped of the maudlin overtones the song has been draped with over the years. Mac was then joined by guitarist Cornell Dupree, who Dr. John introduced with typical linguistic playfulness: "He's played on so many sessions somebody didn't even know he played on their session." The duo went on to play "Thing's Won't Be the Same," an appropriate commentary on the passing of an American musical legend.