Allen Toussaint: The Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch)
I’ve long been aware of Allen Toussaint as a New Orleans treasure, a prolific songwriter, magic-touch producer and arranger, and solo artist with a rather middling voice. I knew he played piano, but did not know he was such a bad, bad man at the keyboard.
I do now.
The Bright Mississippi, produced by Toussaint’s friend and frequent collaborator Joe Henry, is nothing short of a revelation, an album of instrumentals (save one vocal) that both honors and reinvents a number of songs associated with early New Orleans blues and jazz: Sidney Bechets’ “Egyptian Fantasy,” Jellyroll Morton’s “Winin’ Boy Blues,” Joe Oliver’s West End Blues,” and traditionals “St. James Infirmary” and “Take a Closer Walk With Thee,” to name a handful.
Toussaint and his dream band — trumpeter Nicholas Payton, clarinetist Don Byron, acoustic guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist David Piltch and drummer Jay Bellerose — play the songs with an expansive ease, rather than employing tightly wound improvisational free-for-alls often referred to as Dixieland. One of the album’s charms, though, is the clattering, march-style drums heard on a number of the full-ensemble pieces (”Singin’ the Blues,” Monk’s “Bright Mississippi”), imbuing them with an antique quality.
Toussaint has expert command of the Crescent City piano style handed down through the generations, and can deliver the rolling chords, blues-drenched licks, trills and cascades that are its defining elements, but he also has a songwriter’s sense of melody and a jazzbo’s feel for harmony that enables him to transcend the keyboard colloquialisms.
On a few songs, Henry and Touissant split the ensemble into smaller units, with terrific results, especially on a midnight version of Ellington’s “Daydream,” a piano/tenor sax duet with Joshua Redman. The horn players lay out on Django Reinhardt’s “Blue Drag,” allowing Ribot and Toussaint to play their instrumental elegance off of each other, and then the rhythm section steps aside for “Solitude,” making for an album-closing piano/guitar duet that concludes the disc in radiantly romantic fashion.