CD Review: James Booker - Classified: Remixed And Expanded

The late piano genius' final album, remixed and expanded
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As New Orleans musicians go, James Booker would certainly be at or near the top. A contemporary of Dr. John, among others, the self-proclaimed "Bronze Liberace" played on albums by a diverse group of artists ranging from Ringo Starr to Fats Domino to Maria Muldaur. He also served as a mentor for a young Harry Connick Jr. Booker was not without his demons, however. Long-term struggles with drugs and alcohol indirectly contributed to his death from renal failure at age 43 and he struggled with mental illness as well. His music remains timeless though and Booker has amassed a growing legion of followers in recent years. His final album, Classified, has been remixed and expanded, offering a fascinating glimpse at this troubled genius' last sessions.

Booker's music ranged from rhythm and blues to jazz to New Orleans to classical and all of those styles are evident on Classified. The album opens with the title track, a Booker original with a lengthy, rollicking piano intro. Booker's virtuosity is in full force from the outset and while his vocal ability may not match his playing, it is soulful nonetheless. The song may be partially autobiographical, with references to him being crazy, but the performance smokes.

"If You're Lonely" is a slow burning blues number with an impassioned vocal from Booker. Alvin "Red" Tyler offers fine tenor sax accompaniment to Booker's piano in this heart-wrenching track. The medley of "Tico Tico/Papa Was A Rascal/So Swell When You're Well" is a stunning display of piano prowess, mixing Latin music with rhythm and blues and a New Orleans sensibility. Tyler's sax melodies offer a nice counterpoint to Booker's lightning fast piano runs on this great track.

Booker goes classical on the previously unreleased "Warsaw Concerto," showing his amazing diversity as a musician while his take on the "Theme From The Godfather"  -- also previously unreleased -- is a syncopated version that manages to keep the original's melody while pushing the song in exciting new directions. His version of the jazz standard, "Angel Eyes," features some of his best playing on the album and would make Frank Sinatra proud.

There are a few missteps on the CD. Booker's versions of "Baby Face" and "King Of The Road" for instance showcase a quirky sense of humor and vocal style that fans will either completely love or hate. Still, these are few and far between and, given his mental and physical condition at the time, it's remarkable the album is as strong as it is.

Booker lived his life to the fullest, but his influence and talent cannot be denied. Classified: Remixed And Expanded showcases a remarkable musician whose life was cut way too short.