Allen Toussaint's American Tunes

July 14, 2016

 

On a hot summer night in 2006 in Montreal, a free, outdoor concert was held that was billed as a Tribute to Paul Simon. Among the performers was Allen Toussaint: musician, producer, composer and one of New Orleans’ favourite sons. Toussaint performed two songs that evening: “Take Me to The Mardi Gras” and “American Tune” (featuring Elvis Costello). Ironically, on the night in question, Toussaint could have easily been the honoree, having penned hits for the Pointer Sisters, Lee Dorsey and Aaron Neville among others. He produced, arranged and played keyboards on Labelle’s hit record “Lady Marmalade” in 1974, one of the biggest hits that year. Glen Campbell had a mainstream country hit with “Southern Nights” written by Toussaint that went to Number 1 on the Pop Charts in 1977.

But I suspect most people in the audience had no idea that they were hearing from an artist with as rich and diverse contribution to American music as Allen Toussaint. He rarely performed in public and worked “behind the scenes” – in fact he preferred it. During the fifties and sixties when he was writing songs he even used his mother’s name Naomi Neville or Al Tousan as the composer. The solitude of the studio away from the public eye was Toussaint’s refuge of creativity in a resilient career away from the spotlight.

But in the late summer of 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and the better part of the Gulf Coast, Toussaint was one of the many victims of the devastation. He lost most of his possessions and his beloved studio after the levees broke and flooded most of New Orleans. With the help of a few friends, he left his home is search of work as a piano-player which landed him some steady gigs in New York. His time there led to a recording with Elvis Costello called The River in Reverse (Verve), which was nominated for a Grammy award. Produced by Joe Henry, it was a labour of love for Costello who sang most of Toussaint’s biggest hits with the composer at the piano. The record went a long way to champion Toussaint’s music to a wider audience. By 2006, at the age of 68, Toussaint went on the road with Costello, made some TV appearances and began to fashion a touring career. He played his hits around the world and brought the spirit of New Orleans to audiences who were hungry for the music and culture of the region.

 

In 2009, he hooked up once again with Joe Henry and released The Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch). It received critical acclaim for its “chamber” sound as Toussaint surveyed the jazz tradition with music by Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton. By the following year he was touring on his own, usually leading a small group to cities and festivals in Canada, Europe and the continental United States. Toussaint gained confidence as a performer and continued to play concerts until last November when he died of a heart attack in Madrid Spain, following a show. But before he went on the final leg of his European tour Toussaint recorded music that was particularly close to his roots, namely the New Orleans great Professor Longhair. That record was completed in October 2015 and released last Friday as American Tunes (Nonesuch). It is near perfect in conception and performance.

So much can be said about this record that I find myself lacking the right vocabulary to properly discuss its musical merits. This is a pure album: uncluttered, humorous, and with just the right amount of groove to keep your foot tapping. Toussaint captures all of that purity in his version of “Take Me to Mardi Gras” originally recorded by Professor Longhair. But Toussaint doesn’t mimic this popular up-tempo number, he slows the rhythm and graces it with a stunning introduction. What we hear is chamber jazz of the highest order, long removed from the dusty and dingy halls from whence it came. Toussaint and producer Joe Henry have achieved a higher form of musical art and set a new standard of excellence. 

For me the real gems are two cuts with vocalist Rhiannon Giddens. “Rocks in My Bed” is from the musical Jump for Joy by Duke Ellington that was originally recorded in 1941 with Ivie Anderson singing the Bessie Smith-inspired tune. Giddens performance reaches all the way back to Ma Rainey on this version. It’s a deep cut perfectly executed by the band, which features Charles Lloyd, Bill Frisell, David Piltch and Jay Bellerose. “Come Sunday” (Ellington) is beautifully rendered by Giddens whose careful articulation of the lyrics is superb. I can easily imagine Toussaint doing an Ellington record or gospel record with Giddens front and center. Sadly, as these two tracks indicate, there was still a lot of great music left in him.

“Southern Nights,” which was a regular part of Toussaint’s concert program, is rendered for two pianos on this album. Van Dyke Parks accompanies Toussaint and totally shares the gentle, laid-back approach so familiar to Toussaint’s style. Toussaint had a remarkable touch as a pianist and that track, in fact the whole album, is a study in his technique and how he personalized it over time. 

The album closes with Simon’s “American Tune,” a bittersweet statement about the American experience juxtaposed with a melody from  St. Matthew’s Passion by J.S. Bach. This performance is far superior to the less assured version Toussaint sang ten years earlier in Montreal. (It was released on CD in 2007) He probably felt insecure in front of so many people that hot July night. But ten years later, in the comfort of his studio Toussaint emerges on this record as one of the most creative voices in American music. He will be missed.

 

This essay first appeared on criticsatlarge on June 15, 2016.

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