Though he had but one hit (“Bald Head” in 1950) in his heyday, Professor Longhair is the hallowed, idiosyncratic New Orleans piano player from whom all modern New Orleans piano players, from Fats Domino through Allen Toussaint and Dr. John, descend. Creator of a deceptively relaxed style that seamlessly blended rhumba and other Caribbean forms into a bluesy Crescent City boogie, he had a metronomic left hand and a right that skittered all over the keyboards, “curling” notes the way blues guitarists bend them. He sang in a creaking, croaking voice; the comic effect embodied New Orleans party in all its glory, and his debut single, the 1949 “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” is still one of the definitive carnival songs.
Alas, Longhair dropped out of music in the mid ’60s and was working as a janitor until he was rediscovered and ultimately elevated to local-hero status by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. In his second career, during which he recorded both live and in the studio, he sometimes appeared with just conga player Alfred “Uganda” Roberts, an arrangement which gave full play to his piano playing. But for this live album, in which he ushers in Mardi Gras in1978 at Tipitina’s, he has a full band behind him, and they’re more than up to the task. The result is one of the best albums of his career.
Like Thelonious Monk, Longhair had few songs in his repertoire and spent a lifetime honing each. His piano work consisted of startling refinements more than full-out improvisations. Here, the opening “Big Chief” moves like a runaway truck on a downgrade; “Doin’ It” features blouzy horns, “Gone So Long” has an almost country feel, “Bald Head” is buoyant (and Longhair’s vocal hilariously incredulous). A police strike canceled Mardi Gras ’79, and Professor Longhair died weeks before the 1980 event, so this really was his last Mardi Gras. But what a way to go out.