Extrapolating rhythm and blues

Cajun monarch Marcia Ball spreads her wings

When she's not on the road, Marcia Ball--the white-chick R&B pianist with Tina Turner's legs and Professor Longhair's fingers--divides her time between her Austin headquarters and the French Quarter's Bienville House hotel. But that's just occupying physical space.

Listening to Let Me Play With Your Poodle, the latest in her rich legacy of albums for Rounder Records that includes such salty, swampy R&B classics as Gatorhythms, Blue House, and Hot Tamale Baby, it's easy to figure out that her spiritual home is anywhere along the Gulf Coast.

"I think that's the unifying spirit behind my work," says Ball, who was born in Orange, Texas, and grew up just across the border in Vinton, Louisiana. "I draw this big arc from Pascagoula, Mississippi, to south of Corpus Christi, and if you want, you can loop it on up, all the way to Memphis on one end, and come down on the west side of Dallas. And to me, that's the most fertile musical area that ever was. It means you can do Moon Mullican or Lefty Frizzell or Clifton Chenier or Flaco Jimenez. And so on."

That musical parabola would also include blues, swamp pop, and, of course, the legendary New Orleans piano history that's at the heart of Ball's multi-hued musical offerings. After all, Ball was the only female invited to perform at the inaugural Professor Longhair tribute sponsored by the late master's home base--the club Tipitina's--at the '93 Jazz and Heritage Festival, sharing the spotlight with such luminaries as Dr. John, Eddie Bo, Ellis Marsalis, Davell Crawford, and Tommy Ridgley.

But as firmly entrenched as Ball may be in the lush musical geography she speaks so fondly of, she's definitely stretching out into some new territories. For one thing, Let Me Play With Your Poodle continues the trend of her last few albums, allowing Ball's original compositions to take more and more of the limelight from the obscure but brilliant covers she's so adept at finding and arranging.

For another, Ball's already wrapped another album, one in which she's paired with New Orleans R&B queen Irma Thomas and super-voiced folk and blues legend Tracy Nelson. And should the concept for that record (which will be out on Rounder in January) seem familiar, it's because it was probably inspired by Dreams Come True, the remarkable album Ball made with Angela Strehli and Lou Ann Barton for the Antone's label in 1990.

"Somebody told me that Irma came up with the idea [for the new collaboration]," Ball says. "Rounder--after the success of the one Angela, Lou, and I did--thought that the project was a good plan."

With typical modesty, Ball admits to finding the idea of sharing a microphone with Thomas and Nelson a little intimidating at first. "Well, one thought that occurred to me," she says, "was that my little voice was going to get buried under those two legendarily great voices. And the reality was that Tracy and I had always put Irma up on a pedestal.

"But the hard thing about putting Irma on a pedestal is that she won't stay up there! She wants to come down and play with everyone else!"

Ball adds that the sessions turned out to be so relaxed and so much fun for the participants that, at one point, Nelson pulled her aside and said, "Look what we're doing! Look what we get to do!"

But though the promise of Nelson, Ball, and Thomas together whets the appetite for next year's release, one listen to the fresh-on-the-streets Let Me Play With Your Poodle proves that Ball has made her best album yet--an argument that can be attributed to her continued development as a songwriter.

Always an evocative lyricist--consider "That's Enough of That Stuff," off of '86's Hot Tamale Baby, or, more recently, the terrific and haunting "St. Gabriel" or "Sparkle Paradise" off 1994's Blue House--Ball has become marvelous at painting three-minute snapshots: the sort of storytelling one might hear at a gumbo cook-off hosted by Clifton Chenier and James Lee Burke. Scrambled with heart-melting R&B balladry, coming from a place where the cookin' right hand of barrelhouse boogie woogie meets the left hand's spidery, James Booker-esque bass riddums, Ball's lyrics take on a singular style that renders her much more than an interpreter.

"Obviously, some of my material is autobiographical," Ball says. "But a lot of [the songs] are simply stories that need to be told."

A former LSU English major, Ball still devours literature and writes fiction for her own entertainment--though the latter may never see the light of day.

"My standards for reading fiction are high," she says matter-of-factly, "so until I feel certain my own writing is of that caliber, it stays with me. Besides, songwriting's my priority now."

Ball's songs of loss, longing for the past, or the ever-maddening, ever-entertaining world of relationships consistently elevate the R&B structures she loves so well. On Poodle, pensive tunes such as "Why Women Cry," "The Story of My Life," and "For the Love of My Life" would have done Otis Redding proud, while the witty, practical demands of "The Right Tool for the Job" and the Mellencamp-on-the-Bayou narrative of "American Dream" are irresistible and literate dance-floor sagas.

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