The music of pianist, composer, songwriter, and producer Allen Toussaint just is. His unforced melodies and lyrics, which run the gamut from overheard romantic conversation to incantation and funky chant, sound like the result of nature, the product of evolution or weather, maybe. They sound older than Toussaint’s 72 years would allow, like they’ve always been around. He’s been covered by Devo, Otis Redding, Iron Butterfly, Elvis Costello, Glen Campbell, the Grateful Dead, and Irma Thomas. For last year’s The Bright Mississippi, Toussaint and boutique producer Joe Henry recruited Marc Ribot, Brad Mehldau, Don Byron, Joshua Redman and a bunch of other hip-listers. The record, all simmering traditionals and standards, does nothing to help fasten Toussaint to a timeline or particular epoch.
In this era of contrived reunions and reinventions among aging bands and performers, Toussaint’s model is unique. His recent recordings sound impressively similar to his first hits as producer and pianist on the New Orleans Minit label, circa mid-1960s. Rather than repackaging himself to suit the many generations he’s entertained, Toussaint has managed to thrive by simply making consistently good music in his own distinct style. Toussaint’s treatment of Monk’s “Bright Mississippi,” on the new record, is audibly related to “Whipped Cream,” one of Toussaint’s earliest commercial successes, recorded by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. The man has said that his love affair with the piano began the first time he encountered the instrument, age 6—that he couldn’t believe he could persuade such a large instrument to make a pleasant sound just by touching it. The piano continues to indulge him.
Toussaint’s recent re-emergence is no doubt related to Hurricane Katrina and his public experience during and following that storm. (Blogs and unsubstantiated cable news reports had Toussaint stranded at the Superdome. Toussaint has since said that he was in fact at the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel.) When the water retreated, so did Toussaint, to New York City, apparently so he could simply keep working. He has been embraced as a representative of New Orleans, by just continuing to do what needs to be done. New Orleans is a music and a place. Sessions for Toussaint’s collaborative effort with Elvis Costello, The River in Reverse, were recorded in New Orleans the year after Katrina. If New Orleans, the music, was proven to be alive and well, there must also be hope for New Orleans, the city.
Devoid of biographical details, Toussaint’s music still evokes New Orleans and all its water. When Toussaint misses his mentor, Professor Longhair, every echoing second-line measure is its own parade. The rhythm he applies with his left hand on, say, a song like “Fortune Teller” (recently recorded by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss) is tidal in its comings and goings. Everything he touches, no matter how upright and proper at face, ends up being sexually suggestive. On The Bright Mississippi, Toussaint dusts off Jelly Roll Morton’s splendid “Winin’ Boy Blues.” This song, by the loudest and most assured of many self-proclaimed inventors of jazz, often comes up in academic chatter when the subject is gutter-mouthed lyrics as nothing new. It’s about a century old now, and one of the earliest musical references to sex as “the twist.” Toussaint’s instrumental piano duet with Brad Mehldau is somehow more explicit than Morton’s barrelhouse romp. There is lace. There is foreplay. There is back and forth. There are multiple, um, crescendoes.
As a child and piano student, Toussaint became aware of Grieg, Bach, and Professor Longhair almost simultaneously. He says he never had cause to differentiate, finding them equally complex and noble. Joe Henry says he decided to make The Bright Mississippi after hearing Toussaint play Longhair’s “Tipitina” to himself in a room where he thought no one could hear him. His logic is sound. And the prospect of hearing Allen Toussaint play “Tipitina”—with that same jubilant and canonical muscle he would offer to Bach—is ample cause to walk to the Bijou next Wednesday.