Recording of July 2009: The Bright Mississippi

Allen Toussaint: The Bright Mississippi
Nonesuch 480380-2 (CD). 2009. Joe Henry, prod.; Kevin Killen, eng.; Anthony Ruotolo, asst. eng. AAD? TT: 61:31
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

Thanks to Dixieland bands, and the musical flotsam and jetsam that musically populated Bourbon Street before Katrina, traditional New Orleans jazz had largely become a garish cartoon in which spinning umbrellas and an obligatory finale of "When the Saints Go Marching In" made anyone familiar with this rich canon want to retch. But as many a famous song lyric goes—performances by Alison Kraus and Jim Croce come to mind—it doesn't have to be that way.

If New Orleans ever had a performer and a creative presence that could be described as elegant, it's Allen Toussaint. Terms like tasteful and suave don't quite encompass everything about Toussaint's keyboard skills, impeccable arranging chops, and knockout ability to write truly memorable songs. As musicians go, the man is the entire package, and then some.

Born and raised in the Gert Town neighborhood (his mother is a Neville), Toussaint began his performing career at 17, when he unexpectedly filled in at a gig for an ailing Huey "Piano" Smith. He began his career as an R&B session player and songwriter, and by the 1960s had become the successor, in writing and producing, to Dave Bartholomew, who'd dominated those aspects of the city's R&B scene in the '50s. Supposedly, Toussaint even played on a couple Fats Domino records when the man himself was out of town. As the resident writing-and-producing Svengali for the Minit and Instant labels in the '60s, Toussaint wrote and produced hits for Irma Thomas, Ernie K-Doe, and especially Lee Dorsey, whose career hinged on Toussaint tunes like "Ride a Pony" and "Working in a Coal Mine." Later, Toussaint was instrumental in forming the Meters, made an easy '70s transition from R&B to soul and funk, and released his solo high point Southern Nights in 1975. In 1976, a cover of that album's title cut powered Glen Campbell's album of the same name to the top of the country charts.

Among his many gifts, it's Toussaint's songwriting that is nothing short of remarkable. Over the years, he's undoubtedly had a lot of fun cashing royalty checks, thanks to a plethora of cover versions of his songs. One, "Fortune Teller," has been covered by everyone from the Rolling Stones (Got Live If You Want It!, 1966) to Robert Plant and Alison Kraus (Raising Sand, 2007). Boz Scaggs rode "What Do You Want the Girl to Do" up the pop charts in 1976. Even more gratifying for the now-71-year-old songwriter-pianist is that other songwriters cover his songs. Little Feat recorded "On Your Way Down" on Dixie Chicken, Warren Zevon recorded "A Certain Girl" in 1980, and even Phish got in on the action, making "Sneakin' Sally through the Alley" a regular part of their live shows.

Here, the now 71 year-old Toussaint is taken out of his R&B/funk comfort zone and placed in the New Orleans trad context that still underpins the playing of most NOLA musicians of Toussaint's generation, who grew up with the history and have always used it as a basis of their own creativity, whether they knew it or not. It's hard to be a musician of any stripe in New Orleans—maybe even Lil' Wayne—and not be aware and respectful of the history. Where this record's genius comes in is that the canny Toussaint approaches a threadbare classic like "Dear Old Southland" sideways rather than straight on. Instead of adding yet another superfluous cover version to the mountain of mediocrity that already exists—or, conversely, trying to outdo the archetypal versions by Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet—he allows the super-talented group of musicians around him to bring their interpretative mojo to the tune, resulting in a languid, new-yet-old version that adds much to the canon of that storied number. It's what producer Joe Henry says is "like nothing I've ever heard before and like everything I'd ever heard."

The same goes for an even more famous tune, "St. James Infirmary," covered by everyone from Tom Jones to Janis Joplin, not to mention such Crescent City luminaries as King Oliver, James Booker, and Mac Rebennack. This very stark version begins with guitarist Marc Ribot strumming tight strings and Toussaint's piano taking the melody line. In the second verse the pair switch places. Single, expansive cymbal splashes, handclaps, and a bit of drums are the only other sounds present. Just a touch of the one-upmanship that's such a cherished part of New Orleans cutting sessions drives both men to play a little faster and more inventively before the tune winds down to end as quietly as it began. Cut of infinitely familiar cloth, this simple demonstration of polish and precision is sublime.

In a disc filled with almost nothing but highlights, it's impossible to mention them all, but two others deserve special nods. While "Singin' the Blues" was originally recorded in Manhattan by the great Iowa-born trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke, it has the flavor of traditional New Orleans jazz. It's also the kind of iconic number that players either shy away from covering—too much potential for unfavorable comparisons—or slavishly imitate. Both ways spell boredom. Here, in a Toussaint arrangement that is the soul of the term spot-on, trumpeter Nicholas Payton shows just how deeply he understands this happy, jaunty number in a free, easy, yet deceptively commanding performance of the song's famous changes. The album's title tune, Thelonious Monk's "Bright Mississippi," gets an easygoing, funkified, second-line-ized makeover that's joyous, innovative, and sounds, again, completely right.

The key ingredient to New Orleans trad music is ensemble playing—everyone better have the chops to hold his or her own—and in this department, Toussaint's reputation as a producer, songwriter, and elder of the city's music scene has drawn a band full of world-class talent to this project. Payton, Ribot, and clarinetist Don Byron are the headliners, with pianist Brad Mehldau and tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman dropping by for one tune each.

Recorded in New York's Avatar studios, the sessions were beautifully engineered, filled with sharp imaging and harmonic richness, the piano and the horns equally detailed and musical. In the end, this is a sweet little record that's both a pleasure to listen to and a great tribute to one of America's most cultivated musical maestros.—Robert Baird