The River in Reverse succeeded not just because it was a timely and human response to Katrina or because it mined one of the richest songbooks in American popular music. On the album, producer Joe Henry treated Toussaint’s music not as something from the past that had to be presented with reverence, but as the contemporary music that the album showed it to be. It was an approach consistent to the one he took on his first project with Toussaint (and Irma Thomas), 2005’s I Believe to My Soul. Soul is a concept, not a sound found in tube amps, 24-track boards and the legendary studios of yore that had to be replicated.
For Toussaint’s new album, The Bright Mississippi, Henry once again treats music made today as contemporary regardless of when it was written, and once again it pays off. This time, Toussaint plays jazz classics by Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, Django Reinhardt, Duke Ellington and more. The album’s almost entirely instrumental, and the closest thing to a funky track is the Monk-composed title track, which grooves like a second line and occasionally evokes Toussaint’s own “Whipped Cream,” the song that became the theme for The Dating Game.
The sound, however, is not the sound of old jazz. David Pilch’s upright bass is a weighty, soggy (in the best way) thump, and Don Byron’s clarinet is as warm as it can be. In effect, Henry treats these recordings not as pop, jazz nor R&B but as art song—an elevated, sophisticated thing that draws from vernacular traditions. As an American treasure, it’s the sort of treatment Toussaint merits, and it’s a treatment that is sympathetic with his piano playing. He is relentlessly tasteful and elegant, choosing notes with care and sensitivity to space and context. At every turn, Toussaint understands his place in the composition and in the band, sharing the spotlight with Byron, Nicholas Payton and Marc Ribot on acoustic guitar as his conception of the piece dictates.
The Bright Mississippi isn’t the album for Toussaint fans who want him to be the pop/R&B master or the ’70s funk architect he once was, but if anyone’s earned the slack to follow his muse, it’s Toussaint. And if anyone has given us reason to encourage him to follow his muse, it’s Toussaint. Frankly, it’s the album people should want because there’s little less dignified than artists trying to be the people they were 30 or 40 years earlier, trying to be teen hitmakers when they’re more than two or three times as old as teenagers. The Bright Mississippi is certainly dignified, and most importantly, it’s dignified without being distant. Toussaint reveals another side of his art here for anyone willing to hear it.