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Extrapolating rhythm and blues

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.

Still--and this is part of Ball's magic--she will always relish her role as an 88-key archivist and musical cheerleader. She'll always have a childlike sense of wonder about the heroes she idolizes and a Rhodes Scholar's appetite for learning from (and handing down) the artistry of Booker, 'Fess, and the roll call of the greats. As such, Ball's fans can always be confident she'll season albums with seminal tunes from that Gulf Coast musical treasure bin.

Included on the new CD, for example, are the title cut, a barrelhouse romp that was once a hit for Chicago bluesman Tampa Red; "Crawfishin'," which is Clarence "Bon Ton" Garlow's ode to Cajun Saturday nights; and Randy Newman's marvelous, sleepy, Deep South portrait, "Louisiana 1927." The latter was covered in goose-bump-inducing fashion by Aaron Neville a few years back, and is another instance of Ball triumphantly overcoming her own modesty.

"I definitely had to think about it," she says of the decision to include that song on the new album. "You hear Aaron's version, and you wonder what can be done to improve something like that. But I love the song so much--if I could've written one song, it would be that one--that I had to try it."

Aaron Neville would love it. It's the perfect coda to a definitive and mature record, though Ball herself is still a bit close to the CD to have any definitive opinions.

"I always end up listening and getting too involved with a new record," she says. "For a while after it's out, I just let it rest. Then I wait and see what kind of reaction it gets. And it's always interesting to me what songs people catch on. That usually takes a while to trickle down into my gigs, where you start getting requests for certain songs, and I feed off that." She takes a deep breath and laughs nervously. "I guess we're about to find out."

Ah, yes, there is one more bit of uncharted territory Ball has yet to explore. It's time to hit the road, and, as hinted at by the large array of musicians on Let Me Play With Your Poodle (including her former drummer Doyle Bramhall on a splendid vocal duet, "How Big a Fool"), her longtime band has finally disintegrated. The lock-tight unit, which was with Ball for almost a decade, unraveled with her blessing in a series of benevolent family and career moves. And given Ball's love affair with the road--which easily transcends any romance you'll find with Fabio on the cover--such a turnover has been traumatic, indeed.

"It's depressing and exciting and mysterious, all at the same time," Ball says. "All the guys had been with me eight years, and it was a wonderful band of compatible people and great musicians. I just think of that time as this wonderful interlude of stability. Those guys put together arrangements for me and with me, and I can't give them enough credit."

She pauses, then says brightly, "But...you go on. And you can be pretty well assured that they didn't quit because they hated me." She chuckles. "At least I hope not; they all had notes from their doctors."

Among the members in the new group are drummer Chris Hunter, guitarist Chris Miller, and horn man Dan Tourossian, replacing such longtime standouts as Rodney Craig, Steve Williams, and Paul Klemperer.

"It's been terrifying; I'm definitely not making light of this," Ball says. "But the new band is sounding so good. The new guys come from a variety of different backgrounds, not just blues. Which is fine with me, since we're not strictly a blues band. We'll cover it all."

And though her repertoire has been cut from more than 200 songs to around 40--including several tunes from the new record--it's more than enough to fill one of Ball's rollicking marathon shows.

"One of my biggest gig problems is when we play short sets at festivals," she says. "People want to hear the songs that, well, they want to hear off the albums. And when you get to the point like Willie [Nelson]--who has, what? 60 albums?--I can't imagine how he goes about figuring what to play.

"I'm just glad we have something people want to hear, whether it's my songs or one of our covers. There's an awful lot of good music out there." It's a body of work regularly supplemented by Ball herself--and in superb fashion on Let Me Play With Your Poodle.  

Marcia Ball will appear at the Sons of Hermann Hall on August 16.


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