Saturday, June 25, 2016

Allen Toussaint American Tunes 2016

Allen Toussaint passed away in November 2015, and left behind this gem of a record. There may be questions about whether this would have been the record we would have received had Toussaint lived, but they are mostly academic, and hardly worth the time. What we have here is a worthy successor to The Bright Mississippi, Toussaint's recent career high-water mark from 2009.

There are several solo piano recordings that Toussaint made in 2013, and a four-day session with a stellar cast of modern day jazz greats in October 2015. Produced by Joe Henry, who also did The Bright Mississippi, the record has a different feel and intention from its predecessor.

Delores' Boyfriend starts the set, and it is a solo piano Toussaint composition that owes much to the sound of the great Professor Longhair. Delightful in its New Orleans perfection, it is the first of many magical moments from Toussaint at the keys. Fats Waller's Viper's Drag follows, and we get another fun tune with great piano and sympathetic band support. Confessin' (That I Love You) finds the band swinging, and then Longhair's Mardi Gras In New Orleans gets a surprise quiet, laid back arrangement that Toussaint delivers on solo piano, transforming the usually raucous tune. Side one ends with Billy Strayhorn's Lotus Blossom, which includes sweet guitar/piano interplay and a lovely Charles Lloyd sax break.

Toussaint reimagines another classic, this time taking on Bill Evan's Waltz For Debby, with an almost Latin-style, non-waltz time, perky approach that takes the song in a new and interestingly unique direction that works in spades. Another novel interpretation follows, as Toussaint's solo piano reading of the New Orleans classic Big Chief alternates tempo changes, and jazzed-out searching before finally returning to the classic chorus. Ellington's Rocks In My Head follows, with a big brassy vocal by Rhiannon Giddens supported by a swaggering band and hot piano and guitar solos. Dual pianos by Toussaint and Van Dyke Parks, and a sweet, understated orchestral arrangement by Parks turns the sweet dance of Louis Gottschalk's Danza Op. 33 into pure bliss. Solo piano returns again for Longhair's Hey Little Girl, and it's another winner.

Earl "Fatha" Hines' Rosetta gets a piano trio workout, with more fine Toussaint piano and a tasty bass solo by David Piltch. Then Ellington's Come Sunday gets the vocal treatment from Giddens again, and this time her pained Gospel vocal, while emulating Mahalia Jackson's original, is just a little too brash for me. Another fine Charles Lloyd solo almost saves it. Van Dyke Parks returns for another piano duet on Toussaint's biggest hit Southern Nights, and the two of them present a beautifully jazzy take on the classic. Finally, Toussaint sings a sweet, heartfelt version of Paul Simon's American Tune with guitar by Adam Levy, and a delicate band arrangement that seeps into the song as it progresses. Toussaint sings the song with reverence, and it is lovely.

If you buy the CD, that's it. But side four of the LP includes two more Professor Longhair songs on solo piano (Her Mind Is Gone and Bald Head both receive slow, finely articulated readings) and Mancini's Moon River, which is a tasty guitar/piano duet featuring Bill Frissell's understated perfection.

The cast is impeccable, with Bill Frissell and Greg Leisz on guitars, Jay Bellerose on drums, David Piltch's bass, and Charles Lloyd on saxophone. Guest Van Dyke Parks makes a significant impression on the three on which he contributes. But it is mostly about Allen Toussaint's pure New Orleans genius on piano, and his incomparable arranging skill. Clearly the focus is on tributes to Longhair, Ellington, and a few other masters of American song. The cohesiveness of the sound on The Bright Mississippi is missing somewhat, and this one feels, not really scattershot, but less focused. But other than the over-the-top vocal on Come Sunday (and your impression may not match mine), every moment is treasure.

A master of the American form has left behind another beautiful way for us to remember him.

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