Sunday, November 15, 2009

Allen Toussaint The Bright Mississippi 2009

Unless something very unusual happens with the new holiday releases this year, I've got my record of the year for 2009. Allen Toussaint has given us what we might least expect from him, a straight-ahead New Orleans jazz album of instrumentals. But this is no standard New Orleans jazz record where all the songs sound alike performed by veteran New Orleans musicians. Quite the contrary, here is a beautiful, immaculately recorded set of songs that takes the New Orleans jazz tradition into the present with an amazing cast of musicians.

Toussaint's piano is excellent throughout, and his style encompasses all of the great New Orleans players from Professor Longhair through Fats Domino and Dr. John.
And the "back-up" band is stellar. The rhythm section is Jay Bellerose on drums, David Piltch on bass, and Marc Ribot on acoustic guitar. Nicolas Payton plays trumpet and Don Byron is on clarinet. Brad Mehldau and Josh Redman each guest on one track. The backing is sympathetic to everything Toussaint does, and the solos are all spectacular. Toussaint is perhaps best known as an arranger, and these songs are impeccably designed as group efforts.

Twelve songs, not a single one makes you want to fast-forward. The record starts with Egyptian Fantasy, a New Orleans march with outstanding clarinet from Byron. Dear Old Southland features piano and trumpet interplay that is nothing short of telepathic, and Toussaint playfully quotes Summertime near the song's end. St. James Infirmary is done as a walking blues. Singin' The Blues is swinging New Orleans style, again featuring wonderful piano and trumpet interplay. Winin' Boy Blues, Jelly Roll Morton's classic, features Brad Mehldau in a piano duet with Toussaint that makes you want a whole record of these two casually playing off each others styles. It's a highlight of the disc. West End Blues is a New Orleans funeral dirge with Professor Longhair flourishes from Toussaint and classic trumpet-clarinet interplay. On Blue Drag, Marc Ribot finally steps out from his rhythm role for a killer, albeit laid back guitar lead. Just A Closer Walk With Thee features smoking clarinet from Byron and Toussaint meandering all around the melody during his piano solo. Monk's The Bright Mississippi is a strutting stomp/march with more trumpet-clarinet interplay and the obligatory bass solo from Piltch. Day Dream features Redman on saxophone giving a tender and beautifully smoking hot reading on this ballad. Toussaint lays down rhythmic changes in a call-and response with Redman that is just too much fun. Long Journey Home features Toussaint's only vocal on the record, a heart-felt look at age and love that also stars Ribot on guitar. Finally, Solitude ends the disc on a delicate note, with Ribot and Toussaint playing off each other as wonderfully as Byron and Payton do on the rest of the record.

There isn't a bum track in the bunch. Record of the year for 2009, and good enough to appeal to jazz lovers as well as anyone with an ear for great music. Not "challenging" jazz, but melodic and skillful. As near perfect as music gets these days, and timeless.

Available on an excellent two LP set- and you get a CD copy when you buy the vinyl. You can't go wrong. A veteran makes the surprise record of his career. Vital and uplifting, relaxed and fun. This will make a fine gift this holiday season for the music lover on your list.

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