Allen Toussaint – The Bright Mississippi

January 01, 1970

(Nonesuch)

 

www.nonesuch.com

 

In The Bright
Mississippi
, New Orleans R&B composer and pianist Allen Toussaint
revisits the classic jazz of his childhood, interpreting wonderful old-time
cuts by Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington. Though
Toussaint’s band for this album includes avant garde heavyweights like Don
Byron and Marc Ribot, the tone is quite traditional, the steady swagger of
funeral march drums and percussion anchoring arabesque swoons and swoops of
melodic improvisation.  Toussaint himself
conjures lush, extravagant textures of ragtime piano, his playing now staccato
and rhythmic, now flowering into rolls and cascades and fluid runs of notes. And
the rhythm section – David Piltch on upright and Jay Bellerose on drums –
imposes a stately, restrained dignity over the whole enterprise, with widely
spaced thump of bass, clicks on rims and musing, dreamy swirls of brushes on
snares.

 

Toussaint recorded The
Bright Mississippi
at the urging of producer Joe Henry, who, during
sessions for a Gulf
Coast tribute album Our New Orleans, heard Toussaint playing
the Professor Longhair song, “Tipitina.” Toussaint, most famous for composing
R&B and rock songs including “Fortune Teller,” “Sneaking Sally Through the
Alley” and Otis Redding’s “Pain in My Heart,” had grown up with jazz and
ragtime. Why not build an album out of these beloved songs? 

 

So, fittingly, Toussaint begins with “Egyptian Fantasy,”
composed by New Orleans’
own Sidney Bechet with Byron blowing soft and old-style, in clarinet lines that
seem to breathe and sigh.  With “Dear Old
Southland,” trumpeter Nicholas Payton takes the lead, in a whispery, slightly
overblown meditation on “Summertime” that curls up like late night smoke and
melancholy. Toussaint seems to like to highlight one band member per tune, and
“Blue Drag,” the Django Reinhardt piece, is Marc Ribot’s turn, coaxing scratchy
gypsy rhythms that are, at the same time, full of swing and sadness.

 

There are a couple of guests, as well, Brad Meldau duets
with Toussaint on Jelly Roll Morton’s “Winin’ Boy Blues.” It’s another nod to New Orleans’ dense history.
Morton, as producer Joe Henry notes in his essay “I Cover the Waterfront”, has
as good a claim as anyone to inventing the blues. Joshua Redman sits in, too,
on the lovely Ellington/Strayhorn piece “Day Dream.”

 

The disc’s first half is strongest, with just a whiff of
schmaltz and sentimentality creeping into later songs, especially “Solitude,”
the second of two Ellington cuts and “Long, Long Journey” the only track where
Toussaint sings. For the most part, though, Toussaint accomplishes the
difficult job of maintaining emotional resonance without slipping into
nostalgia and self-indulgence. The ensemble pieces – “St. James Infirmary” and
“West End Blues” in particular – swagger with survivor’s aplomb, careen with
life’s giddy celebration, while still allowing an underlying sadness to show
through. New Orleans
could hardly ask for a better tribute.   

 

Standout Tracks: “Egyptian Fantasy,” “St. James Infirmary” “Solitude” JENNIFER KELLY

 

 

 

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