NEW ORLEANS VITALITY Allen Toussaint

Whether telling musical fortunes or charting the
bright Mississippi, the composer and pianist
has always been at one with the Crescent
City.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

Since the 1960s, Allen
Toussaint has been nearly synonymous with New
Orleans’ funk, soul and R&B, writing classic songs
like “Fortune Teller,” “Sneaking Sally Through the Alley,” “Working in a Coal
Mine,” and “Pain in My Heart” and working with everyone from Lee Dorsey to Paul
McCartney to Labelle to Fats Domino to Elvis Costello.

 

What Toussaint had never
really done, until this year’s The Bright Mississippi, was to play jazz. Funny,
because Toussaint grew up in the town that invented jazz and played piano in
its juke joints and dance hops from the age of 13 on. His neighborhood, Gert Town,
was full of musicians, an old banjo player on one side of the block, a blind
guitarist on the other. The music of New
Orleans’ funeral marches and Dixieland clubs was in
the air, drifting through the windows, playing on radios, and yet Toussaint
never tried his hand at it. “Well, I heard jazz, but I didn’t take to performing
it really,” says Toussaint. “I had been busy with the R&B and didn’t really
know how to find these wonderful songs.”

 

That all changed during
sessions for Our New Orleans, a 2005 benefit album for Habitat for
Humanity’s post-Katrina reconstruction efforts. Joe Henry, who was producing
the album, writes that he came upon Toussaint one evening alone at the piano,
playing Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina”:

 

“What came through the speakers, though, bore little
resemblance to the song all of us in attendance knew. It sounded instead like a
history lesson in American musical alchemy. I mean to say that in less than
three minutes, the performance referenced European classical music, tango,
pre-war jazz, parlor folk, and show tunes-all articulated with an eye out for
the blues. It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before and like everything
I’d ever heard. Allen shrugged off my wonder at the piece, volunteered his preference
of the two takes he’d played (the first; though to his dismay I’d only recorded
the second), and then disappeared down Fifty-third Street.”

 

That
song started Henry to thinking. Why shouldn’t Allen Toussaint turn his
considerable skills at the piano towards jazz, playing a hand-picked selection
of classics, backed by an all-star combination of players, people like Joshua
Redmond, Brad Meldau, Don Byron and Marc Ribot?

 

“It was all Joe Henry’s idea.
It’s his brainchild,” says Toussaint. “The whole idea of the songs and even
choosing all of the musicians in various combinations. I’m so glad he did
because on my own, I might never have gone in this direction. But he saw a
possibility there of something good.”

 

Toussaint says he knew almost
none of the musicians before recording The Bright Mississippi — he had
met only with trumpeter Nicholas Payton and drummer Jay Bellerose – and was
unfamiliar with much of the material. “But now, I just love all of those
songs,” he says. “And I like other musicians’ performances so much. Joshua
Redmond on ‘Daydreams,’ that is a wonderful heart and soul. And of course, the ‘Blue
Drag,’ that’s Marc [Ribot] on guitar, just superb, just wonderful.”

 

Toussaint admits that playing
jazz piano is different from the R&B and funk styles that made him famous,
yet says he took to it with surprising ease. “It was quite comfortable and very
relaxed,” he explains. “I found it not nearly as taxing as much of the other
R&B and funk and all of the rest of the music. It was just playing the
songs. The songs are so beautiful, so they took care of a lot of it themselves.”

 

His “Winin’ Boy Blues” duet
with Brad Meldau, for instance, required only one take for the two pianists to
find an effortless groove. “We didn’t talk at all. Joe Henry had the foresight
on what should happen, and he just told us, ‘When you’re ready, go out and
play.’ And that’s what we did. We didn’t talk about who would play when or
whether you’d take it or I’d take it. We just played it and that was it.”

 

 Toussaint says that he never had any doubts
about the project, even though it led him into unfamiliar territory, largely
because he believes so strongly in Joe Henry. “I would have tried anything he
said — and I’m so glad he tried this. I was really surprised when he told me
the kinds of songs that it would be, but now I see what he saw.”

 

 He adds, “I just went from song to song and
did the best I could, mostly not to ruin them. I had a very good time with
them, because they are all delightful.”

 

Although Toussaint had never
played jazz before, trying new styles is nothing new for him. One of R&B’s
most prolific and accomplished songwriters, he has long been adept at fitting
melodies, lyrics and arrangements to specific artists’ needs. Toussaint says he
wrote his first song at age 9, a short duet between trumpet and trombone, and
by the time he’d turned 12, he was writing lyrics, too. He came from a musical
family. His father had played trumpet in a big band before Toussaint was born,
and his brother played the guitar, though only for pleasure, never
professionally. He still remembers the day a piano arrived, for his sister, who
briefly took lessons.

 

“Oh, the piano was brought to
the house and I walked over and touched it and instant gratification. I feel in
love,” Toussaint remembers. “And for some reason, very early on, I felt the
structure of it. As big as this instrument is, it’s 12 things over and over. I
began to pick out little simple melodies by ear and listening to the radio and
any music on it, I’d try to play that way.”

 

One thing led to another, and
by age 13, Toussaint was playing local record hops with a band called the
Flamingos. At 15, and still well under the drinking age, he and his band mates
started performing at country juke joints. “We’d play anything we heard on the
radio, old R&B, Fats Domino, that kind of thing. It was a wonderful way to
grow up. We didn’t have to wait to see what the grown ups were doing.” 

 

By the 1960s, Toussaint had
become one of the stars of the New
Orleans funk and R&B scene, writing songs for Irma
Thomas, Aaron Neville and Lee Dorsey. For each of these artists, he says, he
took a different approach to songwriting, trying to find the right voice, mood
and sound for every particular talent. “For instance, Lee Dorsey was such a
high spirited, happy go lucky kind of guy, so I could write things for him that
I wouldn’t have dared to have written for Luther Vandross, who was so cool and
romantic. I could write a humorous song about working in the coal mine. I can’t
think of anyone else I could have written something like that and asked them to
sing it. But yes, I always wrote for a particular person.”

 

Yet though he wrote songs for
particular artists, his works were often covered by singers and bands with far
different aesthetics. The Lee Dorsey song, “Working in a Coal Mine,” for
instance, was memorably covered by Devo. “Fortune Teller” turned up in the
repertoire of the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Hollies,” and “Get Out of My
Life, Woman” was covered 36 times – the best selling version by the Grateful
Dead.

 

Toussaint claims that he
loves all the covers of his songs. “Whether they deviate from the song, or
whether they stay close to it, I appreciate it all equally. I dearly
appreciated it when I get covered, my songs, because that means someone cares
enough to do it, they have to spend time with it, get it into their heart and
then give it back out.”

 

And for the moment, Toussaint
finds himself in the unusual position of interpreting other people’s songs,
taking them into his heart and giving them back out. After hitting the New
Orleans Jazz Fest recently, he’s now rehearsing for a weeklong series of
concerts at New York City’s
Village Vanguard, May 19-24, accompanied by all but one of his Bright Mississippi band members. (Trumpeter
Nicholas Payton will not able to make the shows.) It will be a return of sorts,
since Toussaint maintains an apartment in New
York City and lived there for some time after Katrina.
Yet, he says, make no mistake, New
Orleans is home, the source of all the musical styles
– funk, R&B, soul and now jazz – that play into his art.

 

“New Orleans is my source of energy. I feel
that I breathe vitality the minute I get to town.” 

 

 

[Photo Credit: Michael
Wilson]

 

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