In the fall of 2015, drummer Stanton Moore, along with pianist David Torkanowsky and bassist James Singleton, had booked studio time to record a follow-up to the trio’s 2014 release, Conversations. The plan was for it to contain primarily original compositions. On November 10, 2015, they and the rest of the world heard the shockingly sad news of the death of the legendary pianist, composer, producer and arranger Allen Toussaint.
“It didn’t feel right not to acknowledge his passing,” remembers Moore. “We just started thinking it would make sense to pay tribute to him on the whole album as there was so much amazing material.”
The result is With You in Mind: The Songs of Allen Toussaint, which will be released on July 21, 2017. The album, which was co-produced by Moore and Torkanowsky, finds the three artists, who have been performing and touring together for several years, at the core of the music. It’s easy to imagine that, considering the project’s theme and with these highly respected musicians putting it together, it wasn’t difficult to recruit guests for the project. Some of New Orleans’ finest artists play significant roles throughout the disc.
Moore and percussionist Mike Dillon lay down the rhythm on the opening cut, “Here Come the Girls,” with a rousing response from the horn section, which includes trumpeter Benny Bloom, trombonist Mark Mullins, saxophonists Aaron Fletcher and Skerik. Trombone Shorty, who recorded the tune on his latest album, Parking Lot Symphony, gets in on the action as a featured soloist. Cyril Neville, who was the first artist called in for the session when the guys deemed they needed a vocalist, takes the lead on this and four other cuts on the album. Background vocals for this enthusiastic number are supplied by, well “the girls”—Erica Falls and Jolynda Kiki Chapman.
“Cyril’s been a hero of mine and somebody I wanted to work with since I was a kid,” says Moore, who previously had that opportunity when Neville toured with the jam-driven band Galactic. Interestingly, Galactic has performed two Toussaint compositions, “Bacchus” and “Muss the Hair.”
Choosing which Toussaint tunes to include on the album was the first task. “Stanton and I kicked it around and we suggested songs to each other,” Torkanowsky explains. “We wanted tunes that we could organically interpret—to reinterpret Allen’s music in a new way,” Moore adds.
“We were basically looking for tunes that had humidity because that was Allen’s signature,” says Torkanowsky, who then clarifies the definition of the term in relationship to music. “New Orleans piano players—from Louis Moreau Gottschalk through Professor Longhair to James Booker and Allen Toussaint—their playing has humidity in it. It feels like the air feels during the summer. It has that aesthetic to it. We were also looking for vehicles for the guest artists that we had to play on them. We were looking for griots of the culture. We were looking for people who Allen would have called himself to do this record.”
Some rare and wonderful combinations of musicians like trumpeter Nicholas Payton, saxophonist Donald Harrison and Trombone Shorty turn up on With You in Mind—though, say Moore and Tork, the teamings weren’t necessarily strategically planned.
“I’ve heard Tork say in interviews that being a musician in New Orleans is like living inside the world’s greatest toy box that you can imagine,” Moore says of the availability of talent to call in for the album. “I prefer tool box,” he adds. “Want one of the greatest trumpet players? We’ll call Nicholas. What would happen if I blend this with this? Call Donald. Call Shorty. We have heaven’s horn section.”
This terrific horn triad turns up on one the disc’s best-known numbers, “Java,” which was made famous by trumpeter Al Hirt. Though it begins with its signature opening melody provided by Torkanowsky’s piano and Payton’s trumpet, its jingle-like, not-to-be-taken-too-seriously character is eventually totally transformed. “Java” goes straight-ahead.
More obscure is Toussaint’s “Riverboat,” which originally included lyrics and was played at a quicker tempo. Here it is a leisurely cruise and, using Tork’s terminology, drips with humidity. Simply and beautifully produced, this song stands as a highlight of the album and displays the composer’s romantic melodic insight.
The core trio is featured on the lovely, moving title cut, “With You in Mind.” With Toussaint’s passing, it holds new meaning—it’s his genius that is remembered. Toussaint was a musician and man of great elegance and Torkanowsky captures that magnificent essence. Singleton’s sparsely placed bass notes add further emotional impact and he takes a rare solo that spiritually “sings” the lyrics. Moore’s tasteful brushwork and use of cymbals display his reverence for the tune and the moment. The driving drummer that most people know kicks in on the fun and funky “Night People,” which features saxophone great Maceo Parker.
“I wanted to make sure that we served the song first and foremost,” Moore offers on the title cut. “There was nothing ‘drumistically’ macho about it. We wanted to ride the delicate balance of paying homage to Allen and stating his work but also reinterpreting it in our own way without straying too far from the original visions. Tork really is a student not only of all of the New Orleans piano players but all of New Orleans music,” he adds on how Torkanowsky was able to capture Toussaint’s soulful and elegant musicality.
It’s easy to understand why some people would expect that the focus of an album in tribute to Allen Toussaint would be on the piano. However, pre-Katrina, Toussaint’s primary work was behind the scenes in his studio and behind the scenes as a songwriter. He blossomed as a performer and the great pianist that he always was when the storm’s tragic destruction urged him out into the world.
“We wanted to focus on his compositions and spotlight them in the best way,” Moore explains. Torkanowsky agrees, saying that the concept was “a tribute to Allen the composer and songwriter as much as it was a pianist.”
That With You in Mind stands as a Stanton Moore album also might cause some confusion as it is obviously a collaborated project, with the main characters being Moore, Torkanowsky and Singleton. There are two logical reasons, for this. One is that Moore led a well-known trio with organist Robert Walker, so calling it the Stanton Moore Trio was out. Torkanowsky, being Torkanowsky, shares another, updated and rather coherently philosophical explanation.
“Stanton Moore has a history of featuring the players that he’s with,” Torkanowsky explains. “So his audience is trained to drill down and find out who is with him. The jam band tradition that he comes out of has a different aesthetic than the old-fashioned ‘featuring.’ We’re featured whether it says it on the marquee or not. That’s why we’re there, to make music.”
To end the album, Wendell Pierce’s rich voice, backed simply by Moore’s drums, narrates the lyrics of “Southern Nights.” Payton then takes over on organ, offering a deliciously slow rendition of the famous song. He then picks up his trumpet to voice the tune’s steamy temperature and deep yearnings.
“I learned everything I know about the studio from my years with Allen both from a production standpoint and a technical standpoint,” declares Torkanowsky, who was the studio keyboard player and musical director with Toussaint during the mid-1980s through the early 1990s. “I really think that he would have loved this record. His spirit is all in it.”