An album that shows a new old side to an American original.
Louis Pattison 2009-04-15
Born in 1938, pianist/songwriter Allen Toussaint grew up around musicians and cut his teeth penning hits for R&B artists throughout the 60s and 70s, tracks like Fortune Teller even finding their way into the repertoire of the Rolling Stones and The Who. More recently, he scored a Grammy nomination with The River In Reverse, a collaborative piece with Elvis Costello that marked one of the first major studio sessions to in Toussaint's native New Orleans following the city's decimation by Hurricane Katrina.
The Bright Mississippi, however, is a more personal landmark. Produced by Joe Henry, Toussaint's first solo album in over a decade sees this legendary writer instead paying tribute to the work of others, revisiting tunes penned by jazz greats like Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, Django Reinhardt, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, and Billy Strayhorn, backed by a band including clarinetist Don Byron, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, guitarist Marc Ribot, and bassist David Piltch. This isn't natural territory for a soul/funk player like Toussaint, who admits the jazz standards are something he's always held at arm's length. The result, though, is both confident and relaxed, familiar tunes made over with characterful arrangements that suggest that while Toussaint may have made his living playing rock, rhythm and blues, something of old Orleans is in his blood.
Highlights come with the title track, a rendition of the Thelonious Monk number turned out with a lively swing and nippy clarinet, while a take on St James Infirmary, the tale of a lover's death as popularised by Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway, is deftly handled with confident piano that takes care not to overplay, or dilute the sense of melancholy. The penultimate track, a take on Leonard Feather's Long Long Journey, sees Toussaint take on vocals as well, which only makes you wonder why he didn't a little earlier. It's a small complaint, though, for an album that shows a new old side to an American original.