In New Orleans, a city known for musical innovation, imponderable dualities, and inscrutable personal style, Allen Toussaint epitomized it all: He was a mild-mannered, soft-spoken creator of hits who drove a cream-colored 1974 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, who could look elegantly complete in a suit jacket, silk tie, and a pair of white athletic socks and sandals.
As a composer, lyricist, arranger, producer, pianist and singer, his music reached far and wide enough to earn induction into the Rock and Roll and the Blues Hall of Fames, as well as a National Medal of the Arts in 2013. It spoke most clearly of and to New Orleans, where Toussaint was born in 1938 and where he remained until his unexpected death at 77 last November, save for a temporary relocation to New York City following the flood that resulted from the levee breaches following Hurricane Katrina. (My last piece on Toussaint is here.)
It was some small comfort that right before I left New York for this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, I received an advance copy of “American Tunes,” released June 10 on Nonesuch, and which represents Toussaint’s final studio recordings—solo tracks at his home studio in New Orleans and small ensemble takes from Los Angeles.
Toussaint belongs in that lineage of pianists who define certain aspects of what New Orleans was, is and always will be—Jelly Roll Morton, Professor Longhair, James Booker, Henry Butler and so on. That roll call of pianists eventually leads you to Tom McDermott, whose sensitivity, breadth and depth of knowledge and skill has makes him a distinctive force on the city’s current scene.
McDermott has big but discerning ears for music and, when he cares to, he writes about what he hears in illuminating ways.
Such is the case with McDermott’s review for Offbeat magazine of “American Tunes.”
I don’t agree with McDermott’s characterization of 2009’s “The Bright Mississippi,” Toussaint’s previous collaboration with producer Joe Henry, as “surprisingly dull,” nor am I on board with his assessment that the album “suffers especially from the drumming of Jay Bellerose, a seemingly fine drummer with extensive credits, who somehow thought he was playing on a Tom Waits album.” Though I must admit, the latter is a good line. And I know what he’s getting at, and what likely rankled more than one Toussaint fan; the rhythms on that album are slowed down and, in some estimation, a bit funk-less. The point was to showcase Toussaint as a jazz-based pianist and improvisor, and I’d say it worked.
I agree fully with McDermott that, on “American Tunes”:
Van Dyke Parks is miraculous. The Los Angeles legend, who has worked with Allen at least since Southern Nights, plays second piano on a version of that song here and adds second piano and a lavish arrangement to Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “Danza.” It’s fantastic that Toussaint saw fit to pay homage to this nineteenth century New Orleans–born master; and funny that because of Van Dyke’s slightly outré arrangement, the 1857 “Danza” may be the most modernistic thing Toussaint ever recorded.
(It’s worth noting that Parks helped spotlight McDermott’s unique gifts by curating a wonderful compilation, “Bamboula.”
And I think McDermott’s got it right with the following, which I’ll with too:
For many the highlight of this disc could be the Professor Longhair covers (five in all if you buy the LP version). “Delores’ Boyfriend,” the Toussaint original which opens the album, is a textbook example of a tune hugely influenced by Fess that only Toussaint could have written. “Big Chief” (an Earl King tune actually, but equally associated with Longhair) uses some ideas he’s recorded before, but throws in some non-sequiturs, like an agitated snippet of Chopin’s “C-Minor Prelude.” It’s nutty, but very fun. In these Fess covers Allen is not interested in copying Fess exactly (though he certainly had that ability); he’s not trying to out-funk Fess either. It’s a much gentler approach, filled with harmonic surprise.
We don’t know if Toussaint intended this is as his last album, but it’s a very fitting conclusion to his career. With his choice of repertoire, he’s saying, “I started out as a Professor Longhair acolyte, and ended up in the company of Gottschalk, Duke Ellington and Paul Simon.” That sounds just about right to this listener.