Artist: Allen Toussaint
Album: American Tunes
Label: Nonesuch Records
Release Date: 06/10/2016
If you had only one word to describe Allen Toussaint, it would probably be ‘elegant,’ and this album certainly reflects that. Unfortunately, this is his last recording, and will inevitably take on an elegiac kind of tone even though it was not originally intended that way. It is the follow-up to 2009’s Bright Mississippi, (also produced by Joe Henry) which was a jazz album honoring Bechet, Ellington, Strayhorn, Reinhardt and others. This honors some of these same composers, but also nods to Toussaint’s biggest influence, Professor Longhair, as well as Earl King, Paul Simon (the title track) and a classical composer. Toussaint’s children, Alison and Clarence, who have long served as his managers, said, “Our father approached this project with great care and understanding of the songs selected, and paid true homage to Professor Longhair, his musical hero. He wanted to bring as much of the Toussaint touch as he could to these wonderful classics.”
Producer Henry describes Bright Mississippi as “elegant and almost classical in its approach.” He describes this one as “visceral and earthy.” My view is that all of those adjectives apply to this glowing work. Toussaint’s interpretations of Professor Longhair and other pianists like Fats Waller, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines and Bill Evans reveal some rather stunning and unpredictable improvisations, many of which almost border on classical music. But his patented New Orleans riffs, sometimes disguised, are there too. While much of the record finds Toussaint on solo piano, there are some remarkable guest performances too. Vocalist Rhiannon Giddens does the swinging Ellington tune, “Rocks in My Bed,” and then finds operatic qualities in her emotive rendition of “Come Sunday.” Pianist Van Dyke Parks sits in with Allen on dual piano for the 19th Century New Orleans composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “Danza, op.33” and an instrumental version of Toussaint’s own “Southern Nights,” two of the many highlights.
The solo pieces were recorded in Toussaint’s studio in New Orleans, while smaller combo pieces were recorded in Hollywood just prior to his passing. These sessions feature bassist David Piltch and drummer Jay Bellerose while Bill Frissell, Greg Leisz and Charles Lloyd also join on select tunes, including Strayhorn’s gorgeous “Lotus Blossom,” which features a soulful tenor solo form Lloyd. Rather than emphasizing New Orleans rhythms on classics like “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” and “Big Chief,” Toussaint aims for the melodic elements, thereby linking them more closely to the tunes from Bill Evans, Ellington and others. His only vocal is on the closer, Simon’s “American Tune,” and you can’t help but focus on these lyrics in view of his sudden and untimely death, “And I dreamed I was dying/And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly/Looking back down on me…”
Bonnie Raitt sums up this album better than this writer can, “As heartbreaking as was his premature passing, it is an incredible blessing to have this exquisitely conceived and performed collection of lesser known American classics; they allow the perfect hothouse setting for the unique eloquence and absolute brilliance of Allen’s playing. What a glorious tribute to one our most treasured and indelible musical legacies.”
As you would expect, this final statement from Toussaint just exudes class. It’s not mournful; it’s full of zest and cool little twists and turns.