Allen Toussaint finally looks comfortable. We’ve finished talking and during the conversation, he expressed concern that he wasn’t a good interview. He was gentlemanly as you’d expect, forthright, and though he wasn’t unhappy, it didn’t seem like he enjoyed the interview experience.
But when he sat down at the piano while the photographer snapped test shots, an ease and eloquence kicked in. He free associated a medley that started with a classical piece that flowed into “Tipitina and Me” then an Irish lullaby, a polka, “Tipitina” proper, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and more. Many of the pieces were songs or styles we had just talked about, and it felt like he was speaking about them again, this time in the language he was most fluent. In this impromptu medley, each composition was recognizable but he also remade it in his own voice with his distinctive sense of rhythm, space and style. Everything was elegant and everything was profound. The musical history of the 20th Century was coded into his performance—not just in the choices of songs but in how his playing reflected an understanding of all those styles, regardless of what he was playing.
It was a similar moment that led producer Joe Henry to his most recent collaboration with Toussaint, The Bright Mississippi. In the album’s liner notes, Henry writes:
One day in a studio in Los Angeles, while grabbing a piano overdub on a song we’d recorded earlier that afternoon, he began amusing himself between takes by blowing freely and with great invention through a song by Fats Waller. I was stunned. It was a revelation to hear this music (“my parents’ music,” he later offered) interpreted through Allen’s very unique point of view. The song, inherently rhythmic as a composition, was transfigured by a left hand schooled in New Orleans, and by the melodic sensibility of a most particular kind of songwriter. “Have you ever considered making a record like that?” I quickly asked him over the talkback. “Never,” he said with a slight grin, and kept playing by way of assuring me that he most certainly had.
The Bright Mississippi is a red herring in a sense. The largely instrumental album with “St. James Infirmary” and jazz tunes by Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong invites listeners to hear it as a journey through Toussaint’s back pages, but as he told Henry, that’s not the case. “‘Dear Old Southland ‘I had never heard. ‘Egyptian Fantasy’—no none of these,” Toussaint says. “Because I’ve been New Orleans funkified quite a bit—and some pop and some Patti Labelle and some Joe Cocker. We don’t get off on that exit usually.” During an interview at Jazz Fest, he told writer Ben Sandmel that he was far more interested in the street music of his day.
That knowledge suggests a slightly different way to think of the young Toussaint who wrote and produced so many New Orleans R&B classics. Rather than being the apotheosis of the New Orleans piano tradition, he can now also be thought of as akin to a young Phil Spector, immersed in the music of his day and making hits for the young record-buying audience, largely teenagers.
The Bright Mississippi presents Toussaint not as a nostalgic lion in winter but as an artist as engaged in making modern music now just as he was when he recorded “Ride Your Pony” with Lee Dorsey in 1966, “Right Place, Wrong Time” with Dr. John in 1973, “Lady Marmalade” with Labelle in 1975 and The River in Reverse with Elvis Costello in 2005. The source material may have been written decades ago, but the performances and arrangements are contemporary. His primary foil on the album is Nicholas Payton, and his band includes guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist Don Piltch, Don Byron on clarinet and Jay Bellerose on drums. The tracks were cut live without charts, with Toussaint and the band responding to the music not as history but as fresh musical compositions. As Henry writes in his liner notes, “He has fixed himself on an old and yellowing map, and by so doing has conjured it (again) to be a living, changing landscape.”
Toussaint’s renaissance has been a byproduct of his association with Joe Henry, the musician who himself is coming out with a new album, Blood from Stars, in August. He had approached Rhino Records and Starbucks with the idea for a series of soul albums made for the beginning of the 21st Century with classic soul artists. “There are people whose humanity is so visceral that this invariably soulful,” he says. “I don’t care anything about capital ‘S’ soul music in a record store. Ann Peebles’ very seminal record I Can’t Stand the Rain, as a whole album is a singer/songwriter’s record, [but it] delivered a beautiful soulful quality that many people respond to when they hear it. It’s not about big horn sections; the songs are very folky in their structure. Beautiful stories delivered by a voice that inclines you to want to believe in it.”
He set out to record artists who had that human quality, and he came up with I Believe to My Soul, Vol. 1 with Billy Preston, Mavis Staples, Irma Thomas and Toussaint in addition to Peebles. Unfortunately, most of New Orleans missed the release because on October 4, 2005, the city had other things to think about. Thomas’ version of Bill Withers’ “The Same Love that Made Me Laugh” is one of her finest moments from the last five years, and despite Toussaint’s self-deprecation of his talents as a vocalist, “Mi Amour” is convincingly sung by a sly, smooth-talking devil.
His inclusion in the project was partially a result of Henry’s search for a musician who could also make meaningful contributions as a member of the band. The idea appealed to Toussaint. “Me and Dr. John, we started as sidemen,” he says. “So I was back into a zone that I remember, and it had been a long time since I had the pleasure of just playing the piano and not having to consider the other factors.”
According to Henry, though, Toussaint later confessed that he surprised himself when he agreed to fly to Los Angeles for the project. “He told me later, much later, that up until that point he considered himself semi-retired; he had imagined he wouldn’t leave New Orleans again. He played Jazz Fest every year, but that was the extent of what he was doing, for the most part.”
Industry changes meant the I Believe to My Soul series never made it to Volume 2, but Henry didn’t lose interest in the artists he worked with. He was working on an album with Preston when he died in 2006, and he has expressed interest in producing Thomas again. He also stayed in touch with Toussaint, who found sessions very much to his liking. “I didn’t know Joe Henry before then, but as soon as I got out and started to go over things I realized this was a gentleman producer,” Toussaint says. “I respected him because of how he felt about the music and how he treated the musicians, and the atmosphere he set was so comfortable. And classy and smooth, he just setup a very creative atmosphere.” It was no surprise then that when Toussaint and Elvis Costello started to work on The River in Reverse, the two producers called Henry to man the board.
Because the city was under lockdown when The River in Reverse sessions started, recording began in Los Angeles then moved to New Orleans and Piety Street Recording 10 weeks after Katrina. It was Toussaint’s second journey back. “I came back to see my house a month later, as soon as I could, and everything was gray,” he says. “It was all light gray, a medium gray. It was very interesting. It looked like the work of an artist, to see everything gray. My Steinway, you couldn’t distinguish the black keys and the white keys. And there were no splits between the keys, just two unleveled bars of grayness. And everything else, the things on the wall, the stools and everything was grey. Very, very interesting. Everything I liked, Katrina liked it more. I resolved immediately that all was well, and whatever I had served me well until that day.
“I resolved Katrina, because I saw it as a baptism not a drowning,” he says, and if that sounds impossibly sanguine or like some sort of revisionism—rampant since Katrina—Henry confirms his account.
“He is sort of a Zen master in a way,” Henry says. “I was just devastated and felt I hadn’t prepared myself for what I was going to see, and he was elated to be there. It wasn’t that he was in denial about how catastrophic the scene was; it was more, to my estimation, that he could see through it to the next thing. He wasn’t trapped by the immediate moment. He could already see through to where it was going and where it might lead.”
In his case, it led to a lengthy tour in front of audiences, many of whom knew Toussaint as a figure from the past rather than a contemporary artist. His songs were celebrated nightly as he toured with Costello, and rather than seeming like an icon from history trotted out for a segment of the show, he integrated his distinctive piano into much of Costello’s music. He also recorded with other musicians including British R&B singer James Hunter and Theresa Andersson. She in turn celebrates him in her live show with a radically rearranged version of “On Your Way Down.”
“It’s quite an honor that they would call me,” Toussaint says. “It’s nice of them to feel that way about me.”
If The Bright Mississippi would have been about Toussaint’s past, it would have focused far more on Professor Longhair. He celebrated Fess with “Tipitina and Me” for Mark Bingham’s post-Katrina project, Our New Orleans, and “Ascension Day” on The River in Reverse” is strongly based on “Tipitina.” As a pet project, he has written symphonic arrangements for much of Longhair’s catalog. He has no plans to stage the music or record it, though. “Right now, where it is, we are very dear lovers.”
The close consideration of Longhair necessary for such a project just confirmed what Toussaint already knew. “He’s our Bach of rock,” he says. “I remember the first time I saw him. He was playing a spinet piano up on Valence Street. It was for a high school, and I thought how ironic because I thought of him as larger than life and there he was playing the smallest piano there is. But it was Professor Longhair and I stood near the piano in awe. Of course I didn’t speak to him because I didn’t have the right yet. Of course I watched his hands, but I was so busy with being in awe and in his presence I didn’t learn too much. But I knew his stuff. Ever since my earliest times, I’d copied everything, ever so humbly in the early days. I knew every song he had.”
Toussaint started playing before he was 7, and before he saw Longhair, he knew what he was doing with his life. Around the time he turned 12, he says, “I told my mother, ‘I’ll always do this.’” Still, he cautions against seeing too much Fess in him. “I came up in love with hillbilly music for a long time, and I dearly love bluegrass and all of the classics and polkas. I’m a polka fanatic, and of course all of the music I hear—the Irish lullabies and folk songs: ‘If They Knocked the ‘L’ Out of Kelly, It Would Still be Kelly to Me.’”
Henry selected the songs for The Bright Mississippi with “Tipitina and Me” in mind. “There was a certain kind of beauty,” he says. “It sounded old world, it sounded classical, deeply rhythmic like tango, with New Orleans rhythm but also had a deep blues tonality.” On a cross-country flight, he scoured his iPod for songs that might similarly showcase Toussaint’s rich musical voice, even though a jazz album seems counterintuitive as a follow-up to The River in Reverse, which celebrated his songwriting.
The project appealed to Toussaint, who had by that time developed a deep trust in Henry. “I feel like an instrumentalist, first second and third,” Toussaint says. “When he first mentioned he wanted to produce me, I had no idea what genre he had in mind. I was glad it would be an instrumental, whatever genre it would be. And to find out it was going to be this really easy going jazz project—that was quite comforting too, once I got involved. It was something that’s mellow, it’s smooth. It’s not taxing at all.”
Toussaint knew Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” and Jelly Roll Morton’s “Winin’ Boy Blues,” but though he knew Django Reinhardt, he hadn’t heard “Blue Drag.” He hadn’t performed any of the songs before including “St. James Infirmary,” despite the song’s status as a standard in New Orleans. “I hadn’t paid much attention to it, but it’s an easy song to remember,” Toussaint says. “I didn’t give it much thought, but for some reason the intro came to me like that. It was something I had done before on the piano, but never used.” In that intro, he teases the melody with a little trilled, morse code-like figure before playing the melody as a series of single notes played only with the right hand. With each pass through the verse, he adds levels of complexity. “As far as my part is concerned, that’s the most unique thing about the song by this pianist—the intro and the interlude. That song is a good song on its own and is easy to remember. You just try not to ruin it.”
When the album was in the planning stages, Henry asked, “When you were the man in New Orleans in the ’60s and ’70s making such iconic records as songwriter and producer, what did you think of Louis Armstrong?’ He said, ‘I thought of Louis Armstrong not at all. That was my parents’ music. At that point, he was sort of a nice old man on TV. I didn’t realize until much later that he was a revolutionary.” For Henry, that admission confirmed the rightness of the project. “Here was Allen at this point in his life understanding the significance in a completely fresh way. It wasn’t about recreating anything to him; it wasn’t in Allen’s mind to be recreating. He was seeing a new light shining out from his beloved city in a way he hadn’t before.”
Toussaint is now 71 and he’s back in New Orleans. He still maintains the place in Manhattan he lived in after Katrina, but he has a house on the lakefront. He’s not sure that it’s home yet, but it’s a place to work—a place where he gets a cup of tea, turns on synthesizers and starts making music. “It’s either completing plots I’ve started before, or finishing some plans I might have thought up before,” he says. “There’s always something on the back burner, so there’s always something to do musically. Everyday is something about music.” Unfortunately, this spring has also meant saying goodbye to contemporaries—Snooks Eaglin at 71 and Eddie Bo at 79. It’s a fact of advancing age that friends pass away, and it only underscores the remarkable nature of Toussaint’s career that he is enjoying a career renaissance now. It’s not surprising that Toussaint doesn’t reflect on their deaths in that light.
“They left something good that is forever,” he says. “These two gentlemen that you mentioned, and others like Earl King and King Floyd, they left something that is very dear and they’re still here. All of the people that love their music—many of them never got to know the person, so the part they knew is still here. I think of that as quite a blessing. The age we live in, lives can be immortalized, as opposed to during the days of Bach where it must be reproduced by someone. You can hear the original guy.” That sort of peace and insight has made his relationship with Allen Toussaint particularly special for Henry. “My wife said to me on more than one occasion, when I come back from some experience with Allen—because I’ve had quite a few of them now, and I’d come back and in retrospect I’m just in awe of something that happened or communicated or performed—she’ll say you’ll never have another friendship in your life like that one, and that’s true. I don’t know anyone else in the world like him
Published June 2009, OffBeat Louisiana Music & Culture Magazine, Volume 22, No. 6.