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 Longhair offer?
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.