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Allen Toussaint - The Bright Mississippi

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Artist: Allen Toussaint

Album: The Bright Mississippi

Label: Nonesuch

Review date: Apr. 16, 2009


Allen Toussaint - "Egyptian Fantasy" (The Bright Mississippi)


The Bright Mississippi is Allen Toussaint’s first proper album since 1996’s Connected, but his absence from the spotlight speaks to just how busy the man has been the last 13 years. In 2005, along with vintage soul legends like Irma Thomas and Billy Preston, he guested on Joe Henry’s I Believe To My Soul compilation. Later that year, his New Orleans home was flooded during Hurricane Katrina, forcing him to become a temporary New Yorker. Two more Henry-produced albums soon followed – Our New Orleans, a benefit album for the devastated Gulf Coast, and The River In Reverse with long-time admirer Elvis Costello. All the while, Toussaint toured the world, earning warm welcomes from audiences wherever he played.

That applause will only grow louder with the release of The Bright Mississippi. It’s quite simply one of the best albums we’ll hear in 2009.

Remarkably, given Toussaint’s long involvement with New Orleans R’n’B, soul and funk (from Professor Longhair through to LaBelle and beyond), here he focuses on a strand of the city’s musical heritage that he has previously left untouched – jazz. Although pride of place goes to songs associated with New Orleans favorites Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver, the album goes beyond them with nods to Bix Beiderbecke, Django Reinhardt, Ellington and Monk. To do justice to such a list, Toussaint is joined by a stellar band including Don Byron on clarinet, Nicholas Payton on trumpet (his dad, Walter, played bass on Toussaint’s production of Lee Dorsey’s “Working In A Coalmine”), Marc Ribot on guitar and special guest appearances by Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau. The rhythm section of David Piltch on bass, Jay Bellerose on drums and Toussaint’s piano provide rhythmic verve old classics without ever sounding like second-line strut.

These versions pay homage without obsessing about period authenticity. So, the opening version of Bechet’s “Egyptian Fantasy,” in which Byron and Payton trade soaring solos, sounds suitably authentic. In a similar vein, on Morton’s “Winin’ Boy Blues,” the piano duet of Toussaint and Mehldau complement each other and mesh beautifully; the only anachronism comes when Toussaint slips in a jaunty quote from his ’50s composition “Java” (as covered by Al Hirt). Great fun.

In a diversion from prior Toussaint albums, only one of the 12 tracks here features his vocals – “Long Long Journey,” with lyrics by Leonard Feather. Pop psychologists will have a field day with Toussaint’s impassioned delivery of couplets such as “Sometimes I feel so weary / travelling through life alone” or – given his seeming post-Katrina fascination with rivers – ”When the river stops flowing / and the trees lay down and die.” Yes, the hurricane hit a lot of people hard.

On an album where every track is a gem, the two Ellington tracks, “Day Dream” and “Solitude,” stand out, both perfectly capturing the air of melancholy that is distinctive to the Duke. Monk’s “Bright Mississippi” also deserves special mention. The title track is more upbeat than Monk intended, with Bellerose pushing it along and Toussaint using it as a showcase for his buoyant piano style. So matched are pianist and composer that I can only hope that Joe Henry’s next brainwave will be an entire album of Toussaint playing Monk. And even then, I can’t imagine it matching the class and the charm of The Bright Mississippi.

By John Eyles

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