Allen Toussaint began his recording career with an album of instrumentals, The Wild Sound of New Orleans (by Tousan) and now ends it with this album of mostly instrumentals recorded in 2013 and 2015. This is fitting. While Toussaint is of course best known for his songs, these were songs that were often so rhythmic that they could have stood alone without lyrics because of their propulsive nature. Think “Yes We Can Can,” “Working in the Coal Mine” or “Sneaking Sally Thru the Alley.”
Toussaint ended his recording career under producer Joe Henry, with 2006’s The River in Reverse, 2009’s The Bright Mississippi and now American Tunes. The first is surprisingly dull, the second one is worth listening to because of Allen, and American Tunes is the best of these three. The Bright Mississippi suffers especially from the drumming of Jay Bellerose, a seemingly fine drummer with extensive credits, who somehow thought he was playing on a Tom Waits album. Other sidemen were a mismatch as well. Toussaint’s playing, whipping off New Orleans R&B licks when you least expect them, gives the album the charm it has. He’s like a wily magician pulling one rabbit after another out of his top hat.
American Tunes is a big improvement over Mississippi. Bellerose’s role is reduced, and the other sidemen are more carefully chosen. Guitarist Bill Frisell is wonderful, adding his ghostly tone to, among other things, Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom,” one of that composer’s top masterworks. Van Dyke Parks is miraculous. The Los Angeles legend, who has worked with Allen at least since Southern Nights, plays second piano on a version of that song here and adds second piano and a lavish arrangement to Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “Danza.” It’s fantastic that Toussaint saw fit to pay homage to this nineteenth century New Orleans–born master; and funny that because of Van Dyke’s slightly outré arrangement, the 1857 “Danza” may be the most modernistic thing Toussaint ever recorded.
Wit abounds here. Bill Evans’ jazz classic “Waltz for Debby” is played in duple meter with a Cuban-ish rhythm, a charming transformation. “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You),” most readily associated with Louis Armstrong, is played very sparely; I sense AT could have been influenced by Thelonious Monk’s famous take. Perhaps the most radical is Fats Waller’s “Viper’s Drag,” whose opening section Allen replicates fairly closely but whose blazing stride in the middle is abandoned for a much simpler texture. It makes sense; a 77-year-old is not all of a sudden going to be able to burn on this tune. And yet even when throwing away the template, Toussaint makes you smile.
Rhiannon Giddens sings two Ellington standards: “Rocks in My Bed” (rocks in the drums here as well) and “Come Sunday.” She’s perfectly fine, but… I get the sense she was chosen as a fellow Nonesuch artist. Why not pick someone who’s really lived these lyrics instead of this talented newbie? The other vocal is Allen on Paul Simon’s wistful “American Tune.” He’s a world away stylistically from Simon, but delivers the song in a touchingly direct way.
For many the highlight of this disc could be the Professor Longhair covers (five in all if you buy the LP version). “Delores’ Boyfriend,” the Toussaint original which opens the album, is a textbook example of a tune hugely influenced by Fess that only Toussaint could have written. “Big Chief” (an Earl King tune actually, but equally associated with Longhair) uses some ideas he’s recorded before, but throws in some non-sequiturs, like an agitated snippet of Chopin’s “C-Minor Prelude.” It’s nutty, but very fun. In these Fess covers Allen is not interested in copying Fess exactly (though he certainly had that ability); he’s not trying to out-funk Fess either. It’s a much gentler approach, filled with harmonic surprise.
We don’t know if Toussaint intended this is as his last album, but it’s a very fitting conclusion to his career. With his choice of repertoire, he’s saying, “I started out as a Professor Longhair acolyte, and ended up in the company of Gottschalk, Duke Ellington and Paul Simon.” That sounds just about right to this listener.