Allen Toussaint, Songbook (Rounder)

Allen Toussaint, Songbook, album cover

What’s surprising about this live album isn’t so much the music, but the talking in between. The year 2009 was a late-career peak for Allen Toussaint, who was still on a roll from his Elvis Costello collaboration three years earlier. In 2009, he did the well-received jazz album The Bright Mississippi, but instead of touring that (or playing any of the material onstage), he did the solo piano/vocal tour that’s captured here. The treat for longtime fans was hearing Toussaint, who seldom gets too deep into stage patter, finally shed some light on his working methods. The showpiece is a 13-minute take on “Southern Nights,” half of which is a monologue about idyllic childhood evenings on the front porch. Instead of slipping into a self-congratulatory “ … and then I wrote” format, Toussaint takes you back to where his muse resided when he wrote it.

Elsewhere, he does authoritative versions of songs that were originally tailored to the personalities of other singers—usually Lee Dorsey or Irma Thomas, though “Brickyard Blues” is introduced with praise for its original singer, Frankie Miller (whose name oddly isn’t mentioned). And there are at least a couple of nods to collectors, as he revives “Old Records” (an obscure ’80s gem for Thomas) and his solo track “Soul Sister,” the only song that ever made “Hey, you with the curly bush on your head” sound like a viable pick-up line.

A handful of new (or at least unfamiliar) songs make the cut; two are about seafood and two are equally affectionate odes to New Orleans and New York. Though appealing enough, all four are a touch on the touristy side. The truly classic songs here—“Freedom for the Stallion,” “Yes We Can Can,” “The Optimism Blues,” “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further”—all had a hint of grit and an eye out for injustice, qualities that turned up again in his work with Costello. Toussaint’s certainly earned his familiar gentleman persona, but his best moments still come when he steps outside it.