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He's a producer who made hits with Lee Dorsey and Labelle. He's a songwriter whose work has been covered by artists as diverse as The Rolling Stones, Herb Alpert and Otis Redding. He's an R&B pianist and singer with a sizable solo discography and a style native to his New Orleans home. For all this, he's a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And now, Allen Toussaint has made a jazz record.
True to form, The Bright Mississippi has been universally well-received, and is likely to be remembered as one of the best albums of 2009. Toussaint brought that repertoire, plus a smattering of old favorites, into the Village Vanguard in a concert broadcast live on air by WBGO and live online at NPR Music.
After a career spent creating great popular music, Toussaint now focuses on material he says he's always known, but has never recorded himself. Several selections on The Bright Misssissippi were penned by the first wave of New Orleans jazz innovators: musicians like Sidney Bechet, Joe "King" Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton. Others are classics from the Ellington, Django or Monk songbooks, and the remainder includes some of the oldest extant vehicles for jazz improvisation.
The resulting album, a predominantly instrumental effort, is full of gentle and warmly familiar sounds, subtly reconfigured: second-line piano riffs, four-on-the-floor guitar, clarion trumpet calls, warm clarinet insinuations, counterpoint, obbligato horns and wood blocks, among other quaint percussion sounds. It's all dangling with elegant, tactful production at every turn — courtesy of Joe Henry, himself a talented producer-musician.
The finely tuned sonics of the record translated convincingly into rollicking romps and unfussy ballads on stage. Behind Toussaint's virtuosic piano was a cast of musicians known largely for its agnostic approaches to genre. It includes clarinetist Don Byron, who also brought along a thin but sweet-hued tenor saxophone; Christian Scott, whose obvious New Orleans and early jazz chops stood in contrast to his electronically processed solo efforts; and polymath guitarist Marc Ribot, playing a creaky acoustic axe several hours short of his 55th birthday. Bassist David Piltch and drummer Jay Bellerose, frequent sidemen from Joe Henry's camp, played with smartly rustic slaps, strums, rim shots and auxilary textures. (Henry himself sat in to sing heartfelt choruses in "St. James Infirmary.") Before ending the night, Toussaint himself took a solo interlude, taking apart classic New Orleans tunes before launching a beautiful solo rendition of "Southern Nights," his 1977 hit for country singer Glen Campbell.
It all represents something of a departure for Toussaint, whose career heretofore spanned more raucous R&B, funk and rock. Bright Mississippi is his first solo album in more than a decade, and only the second LP he's made under his own name since being uprooted from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. (His 2006 collaboration with Elvis Costello, The River in Reverse, was his last project).
Toussaint's appearance at the 123-person Village Vanguard was also uncommon for an artist who has recently appeared on higher-profile stages, such as the 2009 Grammy Awards and The Late Show With David Letterman. But in the lower Manhattan club, Toussaint didn't shy away from that experience, instead turning his stage persona toward an intimate, graceful and eminently enjoyable jazz show.
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