While Allen Toussaint and Dr. John have been rightly lionized by the larger music world, the man who cast one of the stronger shadows locally remains a relative obscurity. With a career stretching from the late ‘40s until his death in 1980, Professor Longhair was the local dean of boogie pianists who everyone from Fats Domino to Harry Connick, Jr. held in musical thrall. While Rhino’s 1993 collection Fess began to address the legacy deficit by anthologizing his recordings, the good fight continues with the release of a recently uncovered live performance in Chicago in 1976, at the crest of the tail end of a blues explosion that cast occasional light on the deeper currents of New Orleans music.
Providing a relatively rare look at Fess live and in the flesh, the striking thing about the short, in some ways modest performance presented here is the ease of Longhair’s groove. Letting guitarist Billy Gregory often take the spotlight, there’s a mix of fluidity and stability to his piano backing, a bomp and a roll that only the depths of one of New Orleans’ deepest interpreters could provide. His performances here ease by with a confident energy and crackling warmth. The set, while short, provides a great song selection, including the classic riff-perfect “Big Chief,” the best-known hitter “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” as well as a suitable gumbo of blues interpretations including “Got My Mojo Workin’.” But then again, Fess’ mojo was indeed always working, and good for us that we get yet another peek at it.