Allen Toussaint – An Appreciation

If ever a man should have died at home, one would think Allen Toussaint should have died in New Orleans.  Rarely has a person been so much of the fabric of his home town as Toussaint was of New Orleans.  He was the most enduringly influential character in the music scene of the Crescent City from the early fifties until just last week when he took his last breath.  Of course, we can’t pick where nor when we will die, so he died in Madrid.

On the other hand, he died just hours after sharing his music and love with fans who likely as not had never experienced it before. Somehow I think that, although he might not haven chosen the place, he might have been at peace with the time, still basking in the warmth of his audience’s pleasure.  As he sings in “It’s a New Orleans Thing” from his live album, Songbook, recorded at Joe’s Pub in New York City in 2009,

“Anywhere I go, something goes along with me,
It’s the sound of the city, the Crescent City in me.”

Not only was Toussaint one of the giants of contemporary American popular music as a songwriter, arranger and producer, he was by all accounts a truly lovely man. Here are a few great ways to enjoy the incredible music he made.

All Star Allen Toussaint Play List

This is a build-your-own playlist of the master’s greatest songs by a stunning array of artists. In many cases, they are the original recordings meaning they were most likely arranged and produced as well as written by Toussaint. In others, and sometimes as alternatives, I’ve suggested different versions, so you can see how other artists have interpreted his oeuvre.

  • “Mother-in-Law” – Ernie K. Doe’s version is so definitive that virtually nobody else ever even gave it a try. There is one pretty interesting instrumental version on an early album collection by jazz guitar master Kenny Burrell called Soulero.
  • “It’s Raining” – there’s the original early 1960s Irma Thomas recording and also an even nicer version on her live album Live – Simply The Best from 1991.
  • “Lipstick Traces” – Benny Spellman. There’s is also a strong version by the O’Jays from 1965, but it’s hard to find as a single cut, and another by Delbert McClinton on Live In Austin.
  • “I Like It Like That” – Chris Kenner.
  • “Holy Cow” – Lee Dorsey. There’s also a good version on The Band’s Moondog Matinee album.
  • “Get Out of My Life Woman” Toussaint said this is his most recorded song. I believe the original is by Lee Dorsey, but since he’s already on the list, I like Solomon Burke’s version on I Wish I Knew, or the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s take on East-West. There’s also a strong version from jazz greats Joe Williams, Mel Lewis and Thad Jones.
  • “With You In Mind” is a beautiful song. From among several versions, I go with Aaron Neville’s on Warm Your Heart followed by Paul Carrack’s on 2003’s Still Groovin.’
  • “Sweet Touch Of Love” – no way to choose here, so toss a coin between Irma Thomas from The Soul Queen of New Orleans – 50th Anniversary Celebration and Etta James from 1978’s Deep In The Night.
  • “Working In A Coal Mine” – Lee Dorsey again on the original, but also check Harry Connick, Jr.’s snappy, jazzy version on Oh, My Nola.

(found this wild aggregation of talent from a live performance in 1989)

  • “Yes We Can Can” – The Pointer Sisters. Get the version on The Pointer Sisters – Live At The Opera House; it’s much hotter than the studio version. Or try Marc Broussard’s cut on SOS: Save Our Soul. Of course Toussaint himself brings an almost anthemic, spiritual quality to the song in his many recorded versions.
  • “A Certain Girl” – Ernie K. Doe had the original hit. The Yardbirds covered it. But the most fun version is Toussaint with The Levon Helm Band on The Midnight Ramble Sessions, Vol. 3.
  • “Old Records” – Irma Thomas singing Allen Toussaint never grows old.
  • “What Do You Want The Girl To Do” – Boz Scaggs from Silk Degrees. One of Boz’s very best.
  • “Southern Nights” – There’s no question Glen Campbell’s version is terrific, so I’m tempted to go with it.  But I also really dig Toussaint’s collaboration with his Nashville counterpart, guitar maestro Chet Atkins, from the great album Rhythm, Country and Blues.

To close the playlist in zestful style, I’m going to eschew excellent versions by the hitmakers and go with Allen’s live versions, all previously unreleased until done so on 2004’s The Complete Warner Recordings:

  • “Freedom for the Stallion”
  • “Brickyard Blues”
  • “Shoo-Ra, Shoo-Ra”

(Note: if you can find the version of “Shoo-Ra” by the Zasu Pitts Memorial Orchestra, Live at the Great American Music Hall, you owe it to yourself to grab it up. I have it on a vinyl LP I bought in 1985. I have never found it digitally, but I see it’s available in vinyl on Amazon through third parties. In addition to “Shoo-Ra,” the whole album is hot.)

In addition to the all star playlist, here are three particularly fine albums from the last few years, two by Toussaint and one by a terrific New York based band.

Swingadelic – Toussaintville

I learned of this album in 2013 from a blog I’ve mentioned before, JazzWax. (See link to JazzWax in the right hand column of this page.) The blog’s writer Marc Myers caught my eye when he described this as “one of the most surprisingly imaginative CDs to cross my desk in some time. The music is an intelligent and swinging fusion of big band jazz and soul-pop.”

Swingadelic came together during the retro swing dance craze in New York in the late 1990’s. There are fourteen musicians in all with four different singers trading off vocals. The song list includes several from our playlist above plus some great adds. The album closes with a special tribute number titled simply, “Mr. Toussaint.” The arrangements integrate highly accessible jazz into Toussaint’s classics. Again, to quote Myers in summing up the appeal of this great set: “It’s just big sophisticated fun, with one foot in the big bands and the other in the bit easy.”

Allen Toussaint – Songbook

Following Hurricane Katrina, Toussaint lived for a few years in New York City.  During that time, he performed regularly at a small club called Joe’s Pub. Two of his shows were taped in 2009 and combined into this album. The song list replicates many of the numbers from our playlist above and from Swingadelic’s Toussaintville. The difference is that here they are stripped down to just Toussaint’s voice and piano in an intimate setting. Whereas the other versions will stir you to get up and move, here it’s just you, the man and his music. Adding to the one-to-one feel are the occasional personal introductions to certain tunes. In addition to these relatively quiet renditions of several of his hits, there are wonderful smile inducers like “I Could Eat Crawfish Everyday” and “Shrimp Po Boy, Dressed” with it’s tasty refrain, “Give me a shrimp po boy dressed and a cold, cold beer.”

Toussaint closes the set with “Southern Nights.” This version is decidedly subdued and includes a beautiful, poetic spoken rendering of a trip through childhood memories to warm nights on the porch of the old family home in the rural south. His gentle voice takes me right there with him as his words paint a picture so easy to see.  When he returns to the refrain and the final notes play out, he’s rendered not so much a song as an elegy for times long gone but held close again in memory and heart.

 
Allen Toussaint – The Bright Mississippi

After producer Joe Henry worked with Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello on their 2007 collaboration, The River In Reverse, he got the feeling that beneath Toussaint’s great layer of R&B and pop-soul, he would find a marvelous jazz pianist. He urged him to record this great selection of jazz standards, all connected in some way to New Orleans, with some closely identified with the city. Toussaint has freely stated that he had devoted his life to R&B producing and writing, and thus he was not very familiar with some of the songs and had rarely if ever played others. Certainly anyone raised in New Orleans would be familiar and could almost by hereditary instinct play certain local classics like “St. James Infirmary.” He just had never really had a reason.

So here we have one of contemporary music’s great songwriters playing nary a one of his own tunes, playing in a new genre, accompanied by musicians with whom he’d rarely if ever worked. And the result? Brilliant! The darn project garners the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Famer’s first ever Grammy nomination, and it’s for Best Jazz Instrumental Album.  Ah, but far more important, what it garners for the listener is well over an hour of marvelous music.

The stellar cast includes the only other New Orleans born member Nicholas Payton on trumpet, Marc Ribot on acoustic guitar, Don Byron – clarinet, Dave Piltch – upright bass, and Jay Bellerose on drums and percussion. Pianist Brad Mehldau guests on Jelly Roll Morton’s “Winin’ Boy Blues” as does tenor sax man Joshua Redman on the Ellington – Strayhorn beauty “Day Dream.” They all shine whether in lead or supporting roles, but it’s Toussaint’s arrangements and piano playing that breathe fresh air into well worn classics.

The music never strays far from traditional New Orleans jazz principles like engaging rhythms and improvisation that builds off of rather than hides the melody. Yet, Toussaint reimagines how this particular collection of instruments should execute these principles. A great example is “West End Blues.” Louis Armstrong seemed to stamp this song as a trumpet number. Here, Payton’s trumpet is still vital, but it is joined equally in the spotlight by Toussaint’s piano and Ribot’s acoustic guitar. In fact I’d have to say the biggest surprises are the twists Ribot provides on guitar throughout the album whether in foreground or background. They culminate in his marvelous closing dialog with Toussaint’s piano on Duke Ellington’s exquisite “Solitude.”

The Bright Mississippi delivers a marvelous listening experience whether you’re using it as background music while getting some chores done or enjoying a cocktail with friends, or if you’re focusing intently on the intricate interplay of musicians weaving their magic around each other.  For that matter you may even want to dance with your baby a time or two.  What it also demonstrates is the man was music; music was steeped in his being.

Toussaint told JazzWax’s Marc Myers in an interview for the Wall Street Journal that once when he was a teen he showed his dad some music he had written.  His dad, who had been a professional musician, looked at it, then looked at him, smiled and said, “You’re a genius.”  We all know that supportive dads will say something like that to a youngster. This dad was right.

For most of his career Toussaint worked in the background preferring for other singers of his songs to take the spotlight. He gave us ample gifts doing just that. Then over the last decade or so he began to step forward into the spotlight, albeit reluctantly, giving us all a chance to know the man and his full range of talents.

Thank you Allen, and rest in peace.