TRIBUTE TO ALLEN TOUSSAINT: SUNDAY, MAY 1—GENTILLY STAGE, 2:20 P.M.
One of the signature moments of this year’s Jazz Fest will be the Allen Toussaint tribute on May 1. But in a larger sense, the entire festival will be a tribute to Toussaint, whose presence in New Orleans music runs as deep as the African rhythms that are the city’s lifeblood. There won’t be a day that goes by in the festival without multiple performances of songs Toussaint wrote and/or produced, and some of those performances will be in seemingly unlikely contexts, because Toussaint’s music covered the waterfront. Some of this year’s headliners— Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Boz Scaggs—were either produced by or worked with Toussaint, but scores of other performers have spent their careers steeped in the ethos of his music. Grammy-winning keyboardist Jon Cleary, for example, recently recorded a great album of interpretations of Toussaint material, Occapella.
Other renewals of Jazz Fest might have been overwhelmed by manifestations of Professor Longhair, or the Neville Brothers, or even “My Toot Toot.” That’s what folk music is all about, whatever’s shaking on the corner that year. This time around, Jazz Fest is dancing to Toussaint’s tune.
Toussaint’s archeological influence on New Orleans music becomes more impressive against the backdrop of the modest and good- natured figure he cut. He was by instinct a behind-the-scenes personality, not a charismatic frontman, but he was the auteur of 1960s New Orleans R&B through his work with the Soul Queen of New Orleans, Irma Thomas, and the legendary careers of Ernie K-Doe, Lee Dorsey, Betty Harris, Jessie Hill, the Meters and so many others. Toussaint also had a genius for composing novelty instrumentals that turned into hits for Al Hirt (“Java”) and Herb Alpert (“Whipped Cream”).
All that was more than 50 years ago, but Toussaint was making new and relevant music right up to his death last November at age 77. It’s an amazing body of work that is really hard to get a total grasp of.
At OffBeat’s Best of the Beat Awards in January, Dumpstaphunk bassist Tony Hall put together a terrific Toussaint tribute complete with former Toussaint associates Gary Brown on saxophone and Mahogany Blue on vocals, but he admits it was impossible to include all the material he would have liked to.
“That was a hard one,” says Hall. “I had to keep eliminating, eliminating. You wanna do this, you wanna do this, but you gotta cut for time, and it’s hard to cut one of those songs. He had a catalog of what, 700 songs? I just tried to pick the best stuff that would be recognized and be entertaining to the people, something that you can dance to, too. That’s how I went with it.”
“I grew up on the Lee Dorsey stuff,” adds Hall. “That’s how I learned second line and syncopation, listening to ‘Holy Cow’ and ‘Working In the Coal Mine,’ ‘Get Out of My Life, Woman.’ That’s where it came from. He was the road map to New Orleans music.”
Hall’s tribute was one of the best-received sets in the history of the Best of the Beat Awards party, but for now that was a one-off. He’ll be doing a James Brown tribute at Jazz Fest.
“I was going to do some more Toussaint shows,” he says, “but his band is doing some and I don’t want to step on their toes.”
The Toussaint legacy show at Jazz Fest will be built around the core of Toussaint’s working band—guitarist Renard Poché, bassist Roland Guerin and drummer Herman LeBeaux Jr. It’s the same band that would have been backing Toussaint himself if he were playing the Fest this year. That’s some empty chair to occupy, and Toussaint’s son Reggie, who is organizing the event, offered it to a friend and music partner of his dad’s: Joe Krown.
Krown may not be an obvious choice, but he’s an appropriate one. He became friends with Toussaint when they toured together. Krown plays a regular piano gig at Ralph’s on the Park, where Toussaint came in to hang out on numerous occasions.
“We did a tour in 2009,” says Krown. “Myself and Walter ‘Wolfman’ Washington and Russell Batiste as the house band with special guests Nicholas Payton and Allen Toussaint. We were out for about three weeks. Reggie was with us. We would play our set, then Nicholas would sit in, then we’d have intermission and when we came back it was with 50 minutes of Allen. It was great, I got a chance to actually know him and hang with him. I’ve been in these kinds of situations and invariably everybody says goodbye at the end of the tour, you give each other a big hug, and that’s it. Not with Allen. He wanted to know where I was going to be playing next. I do a solo piano residence at Ralph’s on the Park and Allen would stop by there whenever he could. At first it was a little bit intimidating, but I kind of got used to it. There’s a video of him and I playing the piano together at Ralph’s. Sometimes he would come in and eat; sometimes he would be just driving by, park his car, come in and talk to me for ten minutes and then leave.”
For Krown, these sessions turned into tutorials with the master musician.
“I was already influenced by him pretty heavily,” Krown admits. “He used to come into the restaurant and stand right next to the piano and watch me play. It was an interesting relationship. We talked music all of the time and I would ask him about certain things and he would show me some of the changes in certain songs, how he played them, like the intro to ‘Southern Nights.’ That was Allen. There are only a few piano players that I spent my time trying to emulate. Allen was in the top three or four of those. He was very encouraging.”
Krown didn’t have to adjust his style significantly to play Allen’s parts, but there were certain techniques and parts he had to get exactly right.
“In rehearsal we were talking about how I should approach all this stuff, whether I should just copy whatever Allen did or where I should assert myself. It’s kind of a fine line, because a lot of myself is what Allen was. There are certain things that I wanted to tap that are very Allen, trademark things that he did, like for example one of the things that he does is when he plays that glissando thing, like water falling. You have to do that. I don’t use that in my playing but that’s an Allen trademark. So I want to do that. And there are certain catch licks of his that you want to do, like on ‘Southern Nights,’ that are essentially Allen. I don’t usually play those licks, but without them in there it would sound like the song was missing something.
“Then we worked on ‘Brickyard Blues’ and I was just playing. The guys in the rhythm section were like ‘Yeah! That’s the feel, that’s the groove.’ And none of it was Allen licks per se, it was just me playing. It fit like I was wearing an old shoe. There are things that I will be copying because they’re kind of signatures, but when it comes to solos, that’s me, and it’s not far off from how Allen played, because it has the same feeling. So there’s stuff that just feels natural, and stuff that I’m trying to capture what he did. One of the things he does is play what sounds like a Chinese figure—da-da-da-da, da da, Da da Da. I don’t ever do that, but if I leave that out of the song it sounds like it’s missing something. We talked about that kind of stuff when I rehearsed with the rhythm section. We did them in the way that the band played them with Allen.
“I wasn’t given any charts. All my notes are written off what we were playing. We had the rehearsal and worked from that and made the arrangement the way we needed it to be. Like when we were working on ‘Working in the Coal Mine.’ In the verse, there are two chord changes—the way that Allen had the band playing it, it was eight measures long but he had the band doing something a little different in the fifth and sixth measures. That’s not how the recording goes, but that’s the way they played it live. We’re trying to capture the music the way Allen did it. We’re not trying to do it the Lee Dorsey way, but the way Allen played the song.
“It’s Allen’s band. Renard has taken charge of directing it. Musically I’m playing the part of Allen, but I’m not the musical director. I play all of the intros the way Allen played them. I play all the little signatures and fills he did, all of that stuff. I have a feel for it because I play Allen’s stuff every night on my solo gigs.”
That Toussaint Thing
Toussaint’s biggest hits were recorded in their most popular versions by other artists.
“He was a great piano player,” says Krown, “but his music was even more influential. I was listening to ‘Brickyard Blues’ and I discovered that Three Dog Night had a hit with that song. The list of people that recorded Allen’s music is endless. People came to New Orleans for that Toussaint thing—Robert Palmer, Frankie Miller, Labelle. He even did a Paul McCartney record (Venus and Mars).”
Though Toussaint wrote songs that he performed himself in a variety of styles, some of his solo work has an ethereal, even melancholy beauty, like the humid, luminescent landscape evoked in his original version of “Southern Nights.”
Toussaint also wrote songs about the dark side of the music business, including the ominous classic “On Your Way Down,” played by everyone from Little Feat to Trombone Shorty. His longtime business partner Marshall Sehorn was the kind of music business figure pictured in the dystopian view of the industry presented in the HBO series Vinyl. Toussaint was obviously not always comfortable with the arrangement, and we might see the strains of dealing with Sehorn’s business practices in a song Toussaint wrote for the Dr. John album Desitively Bonnaroo, “Go Tell the People”:
But your way is dealing with the latter, While my way, is getting down.
Your day is filled with money matters, My day is filled with sound.
Though Toussaint performed infrequently during the ’80s and ’90s, he never stopped playing, rehearsing, and working in a variety of musical contexts. His work with jazz conceptualist Kip Hanrahan is only one example of how wide-ranging Toussaint’s musical interests were. His innovative NYNO label put out important albums by Raymond Myles, New Birth Brass Band and James Andrews along with his own work.
Toussaint was ruined by the flood that followed Katrina, losing his home and his studio—a blow that would have shattered most people but only challenged him to start over with fresh purpose. He went to New York during the period when New Orleans was depopulated and established a residency at Joe’s Pub, where Elvis Costello saw him and proposed that they record together. By the beginning of December Toussaint was back home, recording The River In Reverse at Piety Street Studios with Costello and producer Joe Henry. Producer Mark Bingham, co-owner of Piety Street, was trying to revive his business, and this session was a key element in getting Piety Street back in action.
“Before that session we were trying to do some things but we kept having power outages,” says Bingham. “That was the first week when we could do something like this. I’d been away and I got back in the first week of November and that record happened the first week in December. That first month back was kind of a blur. It was weird. I had no place to live. Elvis was trying to cheer me up. It was crazy coming in here but on a musical level it was fine and it was fun to see everybody. Everybody had a nice time telling stories.
“Allen was more in touch with music than a lot of people thought. He had a lot of success as a writer and producer but I always looked at him as a musician. He was somebody who practiced on a day-to-day level and tried to get better at what he was doing and basically did.
“Every time I’ve been with Allen when he was on a session, he played the piano. He’ll tell the producer, ‘This is what I’m gonna do. How do you like this?’ Just because you’re producing doesn’t mean you’re telling people what to do. A lot of times producing is about what you don’t do. Joe Henry wasn’t saying ‘Do this, do that.’ He was just trying to make it all work. There was lots of interaction but nobody was jumping into other people’s shit.”
The success of The River In Reverse revitalized Toussaint’s career. He did a tour with Costello in support of the album and continued to play live with his own band. In 2009 he released The Bright Mississippi, a superb tribute to traditional New Orleans jazz. He also continued to produce records, including tracks for the final Papa Grows Funk record, Needle in the Groove.
“We needed another album and we needed something to kick us in the butt,” says PGF saxophonist Jason Mingledorff, who will be playing with a variety of groups at Jazz Fest, including St. Paul and the Broken Bones, King James and the Special Men and the Nightcrawlers. “Allen produced many of our favorite recordings so it was like a dream come true to work with him. We were all concerned about whether he even knew us and would want to do it. He agreed to do it on a per song basis. We didn’t have the songs until he got there. We were underprepared, it was very stressful. We were experimenting, and we came in with almost five full songs. He basically asked us to play through them all. He sat down in the control room and we were all in the studio and we played the songs for him.
“After we went through the songs we sat down in the control room. This was the first time we were talking with him. It was a little awkward, we were nervous, he was very polite and gentlemanly to us, and he went through each song and he had exact detailed notes and ideas after only one listen. You could tell he had analyzed the songs right away just as he was listening to them. He would say, ‘On this bridge here, maybe you could go to the fourth chord, and on this section you could add this chord before this transition’—very specific things. We didn’t know he would do so much, we didn’t know if he was just going to show up and let us do what we wanted, but he was quite impressive. His philosophy was he didn’t want us to do anything that we couldn’t do live. No overdubbing the horns, no overdubbing the vocals, he wanted it to be done in a way so we could play it live.”
Mingledorff offers a fascinating description of Toussaint’s method as producer.
“I learned so much just in that first day about how to let ideas happen. If they don’t happen it will be obvious. I learned a huge lesson that day to never say ‘I don’t think that’s going to work.’ I’m just going to take that out of my vocabulary, especially in the studio, because if it doesn’t work it’s probably gonna be pretty obvious, especially with someone like Allen, because he’s not gonna let it not sound good. He had numerous ideas, and is some cases my first instinct was to say ‘This is not going to work for me,’ and they worked! So after that I kept my mouth shut and just said ‘Let’s just try it.’ And sometimes it didn’t work. But he never pushed it. He would say ‘Do you think it was better the last time?’ He would always make you feel like you were making the decision. He wouldn’t always let you make the decision but he would push you to ask questions about it. He would never push something just because it was his idea, which I thought was really impressive.
“We would do a couple of different takes, [guitarist] June [Yamagishi] would play something, then he would play a variation on it, and I would say ‘I don’t think it really matters, they’re both good.’ And Allen would say ‘You don’t care?’ He would ask me to be really specific about things. If there were two takes he would say ‘Which take do you like better?’ I would say ‘They’re both okay with me’ and he would say ‘One’s better than the other. We can’t have both of them. You need to make a decision.’ So he would really force me to make decisions. I think that is an old-school way of doing things, because they had to make a decision since they were only working with a couple of tracks.”
Rock of Ages
Toussaint’s brilliance as a songwriter and producer may overshadow his overriding genius as an arranger, a renaissance architect of musical structure. His influence, again, runs the gamut.
Trombonist Mark Mullins is a contemporary New Orleans musician who works under Toussaint’s influence. Like Toussaint, he’s sought after for his arrangement expertise in films (he scored the upcoming Disney release The Jungle Book) and special projects outside of his regular work with Bonerama. Recently Mullins has written charts for the Neville’s Forever tribute and Katrina 10—NOLA Honors show, both at the Saenger. Mullins led the horn section and wrote the arrangements for Don Was’ house bands at tribute shows such as The Musical Mojo of Dr. John at the Saenger, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s One More for the Fans in Atlanta, and Celebrating 75 Years of Mavis Staples in Chicago.
Mullins will be leading the horn section at the 40th anniversary celebration of The Last Waltz, which takes place April 29th and 30th at the Saenger. The film is best known for being directed by Martin Scorsese and featuring the music of The Band, who were playing their last concert with an all-star cast of guests. But it’s also very much a celebration of Allen Toussaint, who wrote spectacular arrangements for the event. Toussaint had worked with The Band as far back as Cahoots, but the arrangements he originally wrote for the 1971 New Year’s Eve performance at New York’s Academy of Music took that group’s eminent body of work and added a new dimension to it.
“Because of his talents as a producer and songwriter so many people have no idea how talented Allen was as an arranger,” notes Mullins. “After all being a great producer is often congruous with being a great arranger. An arranger has the power and responsibility to make a good song great but is also capable of making a good song maybe not so good. The arranger addresses questions such as: ‘When should the horns appear in the song and what should they be doing to contribute to the song in the best way? What notes should the trumpet, sax and trombone be playing and what’s the best voicing for that chord to complement the song at that one moment depending on what else is happening in the band?’ Often it is knowing when to simply stay out of the way, which many horn players are terrible at.
“When people think of the great arrangers that impacted New Orleans music in the 1960s and ’70s—that is today our classic rock jukebox of New Orleans gems—names like Wardell Quezergue, Harold Battiste and Charlie Brent often come up. Sometimes Allen is left out because he is so strong in his other talents that are easier to talk about, but to me Allen had the most profound, complex and colorful contribution as a horn arranger. Allen’s work is easy to detect as his horns are almost always through-composed, meaning the second verse will not have the same horn language as the third verse. The choruses might all have different variations. It’s like a song within a song that happens in the background with these ever-developing horn parts dancing along beautifully and freely in the background but tight and very well organized. Three horns without a plan on a modern-day song is chaos. Allen corralled the horns to sound free and loose with very complex and direct arrangements that to the ear sound so smooth, cool and easy to listen to.
“Just listen to Earl King’s ‘Street Parade.’ Now listen to it once focusing on just the horns the whole way through. It’s unpredictable, beautiful, makes sense and complements the song in an incredible way. That is an example of through-composed Allen-style horn arranging. There he goes, quietly reinventing ‘cool’ once again. Who doesn’t want to be like that guy? That is unquestionably my all-time favorite horn arrangement ever to come out of New Orleans.”
We’ve only touched on some of Toussaint’s accomplishments here. His credits as a writer, musician, producer and arranger are seemingly endless. But another part of Toussaint’s legacy is the personal impression he made on so many people, from fans to colleagues. One of the themes local musicians who knew Toussaint keep coming back to is how much he encouraged them to make the music that comes from their heart. Erica Falls, the talented singer who has recently been featured with Galactic, was a Toussaint protégé who will be part of the Jazz Fest tribute.
“I worked with Allen the past three years at Jazz Fest,” she says. “He originally hired me as a session singer. I had done some studio work with Allen. He encouraged me to work on my own project and was interested in working with me. We didn’t get the chance to do it but I had been hoping all along. He reached out to me last year to do a show at Xavier University, just me and him, but I was on the road with Galactic and I couldn’t do it.
“The last time I saw him we were on a show with Galactic in Portland, Oregon and his band was opening for us. I walked over to him and said ‘Hey Allen’ and he said ‘What are you doing here?’ I told him I was singing with Galactic and he asked me how I liked working with them. I told him I enjoyed it. He was about to ask me something else but they took him away for an interview.”
Tony Hall was also signed to Allen’s label years ago. The partnership never worked out, something Hall wonders about to this day.
“It was back in the ’80s,” Hall muses. “We had a six-month deal and I was young and nothing was happening so I went in another direction. I’ve always wondered what might have happened if I stayed with him. But he was cool about it. Every time I’d see him he’d say ‘Don’t forget your dreams. It’s never too late.’ I’ve got to move forward with that.”
That goes for the rest of us, too.