In one of those games where you have to guess the name of a song after hearing several notes, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra’s rendition of Allen Toussaint’s lovely “Southern Nights” would prove to be a real stickler. Set to a second line street beat, it could take bars of the song and the entrance of trombonist Michael Watson’s vocals to finally recognize the famous tune. Later, the big band, led by artistic director Adonis Rose, starts swinging to give it a modern edge that is accentuated by the solos of Watson and saxophonist Ricardo Pascal.
Toussaint’s compositions, “It’s Raining” and “Working in a Coal Mine” are instantly recognizable, though. But because they are arranged for and performed by a large orchestra, they can purposefully stray far from how they were heard when played by a combo. At the start, “Coal Mine” stays true to its signature funky rhythm and the horns “sing” the lyrics while the piano of Victor Atkins often brings the tune back “home.” To add some humor to this song, which, despite its grim theme, hit-maker Lee Dorsey made funny, the guys in the band shout out the lyrics, “Lord, I’m so tired, how long can this go on?”
Atkins brings the same melodic magic to “Ruler of My Heart” that’s soulfully sung by Nayo Jones. That it begins jumping doesn’t distract from the essence of the tune and Jones gets right into the groove. “With You in Mind” teams vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater and Phillip Manuel performing as a duet. They make it sound as if this song was meant to be sung by a duo.
It’s somewhat disappointing that three of the nine selections on the album are not written by Toussaint whose songbook overflows with great material.
Songs – The Music of Allen Toussaint boasts the talent-packed, very tight New Orleans Jazz Orchestra sounding great. Its strong theme just cries out for further elaboration.