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.” Continue reading “Listening to Allen Toussaint's Posthumous CD Through Tom McDermott's Ears”
As I packed my bags to head to the 47th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, I felt a pang of sadness.
Allen Toussaint would not be there.
I would not see Toussaint, who died unexpectedly at 77 on November 10, looking resplendent like he always did. Nor would I hear him cycling through songs he wrote or arranged or produced, that were hits for stars of several genres, from Lee Dorsey to the Rolling Stones, Al Hirt to Bonnie Raitt, and that traced a half-century of distinctive and unparalleled music making. In New Orleans, a city known for musical innovation, imponderable dualities, and inscrutable personal style, Toussaint epitomized it all: He was a mild-mannered, soft-spoken creator of classics 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, who could say a lot with just few notes or turn a pop song into a symphony.
Since I couldn’t stick around for jazzfest’s second weekend—which begins today and runs through Sunday—I also knew I’d miss the jazzfest tribute to Toussaint (Sunday, May 1, on the fest’s Gentilly Stage). The announced guests that will join Toussaint’s working band include Aaron Neville, Cyril Neville, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Jimmy Buffett and Jon Batiste, yet Toussaint’s reach was so broad and deep it’s hard to predict who else might show up.
It was some small comfort that right before I left New York, I received “American Tunes,” which will be 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. Here, Toussaint worked with producer Joe Henry, as he did on his 2009 release, “The Bright Mississippi.” Some Toussaint fans I know don’t love that recording, due to its slowed-down tempos and its lack of, well, a certain brand of funk. But I do. It stands alongside Toussaint’s singularly funky achievements across genres and generations as something else, showcasing an aspect of his legacy often overlooked: His prowess as a pianist, which deserves its place within both a particular New Orleans lineage and the wider jazz-piano roll call.
Toussaint was a regular performer at jazzfest. Yet it wasn’t until after the 2005 flood caused by the levee failures that followed Hurricane Katrina, after Toussaint was temporarily displaced to New York City, that Toussaint began to “reclaim my own music,” as he once told me, and to focus more on taking the spotlight as a performer. (I’ll never forget Toussaint’s Sunday shows at Joe’s Pub, the intimate East Village venue, which grew out of a one-off fundraiser, or his 2009 stand at Manhattan’s Village Vanguard.) “American Tunes” lacks the coherent focus of “The Bright Mississippi.” As with the former CD, the new one bears the imprint of Henry, who is an auteur producer; yet Toussaint makes it his own, as he did all that he touched, especially when, on the new CD, he digs into the repertoire of one of his forebears, Professor Longhair. As long as there is a New Orleans, as long as American music gets played, Toussaint will be with us. On that Delta flight to Louis Armstrong airport, it was nice to hear from him again and anew.
This year’s jazzfest took shape under a cloud of loss. Continue reading “Tributes and Tributaries: In and Around the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival”
Though I didn’t file an obituary for the late great Allen Toussaint, who died on November 27, I was as stunned and saddened as anyone by his death last month.
Pianist Jon Batiste‘s recent tribute to Batiste at New York’s City Winer gave me a chance to reflect on the brilliance of Toussaint within a long line of New Orleans legends and his indelible connection to New York City. And to return to the pages of the Village Voice.
You can find that piece here.
As I wrote: Continue reading “Allen Toussaint Deserves a Statue in New Orleans—And in New York City, Too”
I was as stunned and saddened as anyone by the news of Allen Tousaint’s death at 77 on Nov. 10, while on tour in Spain.
I’ll write more about him soon. But right now, I want to draw attention to an interesting development, reported yesterday by Doug MacCash at NOLA.com.
A Facebook page titled “Allen Toussaint Circle,” proposing that Lee Circle be renamed Toussaint Circle in honor of the legendary composer and pianist who died Tuesday (Nov. 10) has garnered social media attention.
On June 24, Mayor Mitch Landrieu proposed the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate army, on the St. Charles Avenue traffic circle as a gesture of racial reconciliation in the aftermath of the June 17 massacre of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., by Dylann Roof, a militant white supremacist.
Since then, the city has buzzed with discussion of whether Confederate monuments should be removed. And, if so, what should replace them?
An online petition related to the “Allen Toussaint Circle” Facebook page, titled “Honor Allen Toussaint – Rename Lee Circle,” meant to formally propose replacing Lee’s image with Toussaint’s has gathered 3,943 supporters from around the globe as of Friday morning.
Aside from Toussaint’s gifts for melody and harmony, his handiness with a hook and his innate sense of funkiness, he had an ear for lyrics that captured truths and anticipated needs. He distilled the pain of romantic longing into “Lipstick traces/On a cigarette.” He penned “Yes We Can Can” nearly forty years before Obama hung his successful White House run on the same sentiment — though it’s rhythmically more astute as phrased by Toussaint.
In New Orleans, a city known for musical innovation, imponderable dualities and inscrutable personal style, Toussaint epitomized it all: He was a mild-mannered, soft-spoken creator of hits who drove a cream-colored 1974 Silver Shadow Rolls Royce, who could look elegantly complete in a suit jacket, silk tie, and a pair of white athletic socks and sandals.
The petition to replace Robert E. Lee with Toussaint sounds about right.