CD Review: Allen Toussaint, “The Bright Mississippi”

Written by CD Reviews, Music

If I were Allen Toussaint, I’d have taken a decade’s hiatus from making solo records, too. While the great New Orleans pianist—right up there on the city’s piano Mount Rushmore with Professor Longhair, James Booker, and Dr. John—got his Rock Hall induction in 1998, the jackasses up there in Cleveland put him in as a non-performer.

Huh?

Sure, the guy helped the Meters become the Booker T & the MGs of the Crescent City and a national funk power in the 1970s. He wrote some great pop songs that others took to great heights, such as “Working in the Coal Mine” and “Southern Nights.” But the offhand dismissal Toussaint’s of recorded work must have felt like a hard slap, the equivalent of calling Prince a non-performer on the merits of sponsoring Apollonia 6 and writing “Nothing Compares 2 U” for Sinead O’Connor and “Manic Monday” for the Bangles. Bunch of ig’nant losers, those Rock Hall powers that be. Mojo wept.

Toussaint’s w-a-a-a-y too cool to complain about people unaware of his own five-decade span of wonderfully Creole-flavored R&B, soul, and funk that evolved with the times. After all, he’s the one that summed up the Golden Rule with musical elegance in 1972 on Life, Love and Faith and reprised on his gritty 2006 The River in Reverse collaboration with Elvis Costello: “The same people that you misuse on your way up, you might meet up—on your way down.”

Which brings us to The Bright Mississippi, the 71-year-old Toussaint’s first solo record since 1999. The piano player’s career has been all about preserving New Orleans music, and this record takes the 1920s-’60s sounds of the city and freezes them in amber. The Rock Hall guys weren’t completely wrong, Toussaint’s musical power resides not only in his Horowitz-great command of the piano, but also in his ability as impresario—arranging music and assembling the perfect cast to execute his compositions.

Produced in crystal-clear digital beauty by Joe Henry, the record’s an acoustic jazz set first, a mix of standards and new compositions. It’s loaded with all-star session musicians such as Don Byron on clarinet, Joshua Redman on tenor sax, and Marc Ribot on acoustic guitar. But look below the surface, there’s a lot more going on: While it’s true that some of the songs like “Egyptian Fantasy” and the title cut might fit in at a Preservation Hall gig, Toussaint gives in to his swamp-country side for his rendition of the old blues saw  “St. James Infirmary.” Yet a third Crescent City musical vein runs rich throughout the record, jazz blues, in songs like “Long Long Journey” and “Singin’ The Blues.”

It’s a gorgeous record to listen to, but more than that, The Bright Mississippi is a history lesson, too. You think you’re listening to a fun, exquisitely produced set of songs that get you in the mood to down a hurricane or six from one of those huge Pat O’Brien’s glasses. But wordlessly, through the textures of the various instruments blending together and the perfect piano fills Toussaint elegantly drops in between phrases—and the bluesy solos cooked with dark roux and cayenne, the bedrock flavors of N’Awlins cuisine—we’ve been schooled. We understand on a deep, subconscious level, the difference between New Orleans music and that of other locales. We get why Allen Toussaint is a cultural treasure and a purely American phenomenon.

And, above all, unlike the frauds running the Rock Hall, after hearing this record we know for sure he’s a performer. Up there, they obviously don’t get YouTube on their computers:

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