The piano remains central to
New Orleans music due to masters such as Mac
Rebennack (a.k.a. Dr. John), Art Neville, Allen
Toussaint, and Henry Butler. They all owe a debt
to Professor “Fess” Longhair, whose legacy looms
large at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
At this year’s event, it dawned on me that I
often see the same guitarist accompanying these
piano giants—Renard Poché.
What was your first gig accompanying a piano
legend, and how did you ensure more calls?
I was playing funk in Blackmale when we
got the call to back up the Neville Brothers
and Professor Longhair on a tour in 1977.
I was familiar with Art Neville’s playing
because I loved the Meters, but I was unfamiliar
Fess’ music, which was more traditional.
When he called “Tipitina” or “Big
Chief,” I stuck to the backbeat or something
else similar to the drum pattern. That
turned out great because you need to leave
space for an instrument with so much harmonic
range and rhythmic capability. The
way Leo Nocentelli cops the snare drum
rhythm on the Meters’ “Hey Pocky A-Way”
verse groove is a good example. I’ll take that
concept as far as transferring the kick drum
and hi-hat patterns to the guitar. You can
do all that with one chord if you break the
strumming pattern into pieces, and choke
and release with your fretting hand.
What kind of instruction did Professor
Not much. He was a loose cat like Mac.
Actually, Mac once told me to either play
right along with the piano, or play something
totally opposite yet complementary.
The verse groove to his tune “Right Place,
Wrong Time” is like that—the guitar chords
jab in and out of the keyboard rhythm.
What is Allen Toussaint like as a bandleader?
He’s just the opposite of Mac—very specific.
For “Get Out of My Life Woman,” he
instructed me to chop along with the snare
drum playing only the top two notes of a
C chord at the 8th fret with an upstroke—
so that the C note would sound before the
G. You’ve got to be very mindful of space
with Allen because he plays really big.
A player with a background in solo performance
can make a piano sound like a
whole band. Henry Butler can cover a ton
of ground; the difference is Henry wants
you to be aggressive with him.
How do you accompany an aggressive player
aggressively without making a mess?
If Henry is running up and down scales
using sixteenth-notes, I’ll play sixteenths
too, but I’ll only use a few notes—like a
conga player with three drums. I’ll play fundamental
tones, and let Henry add all the
color because he’s such a colorful player.
But if the opposite is true, then I’ll add the
rhythmic or harmonic color—unless it’s
Art Neville because he likes the guitarist to
stick to basic triads. It boils to understanding
the kind of piano player who hired you.