Listening to……….Allen Toussaint

Quite a few years ago now, I had the misfortune to stray into the Worcestershire town of Upton-on-Severn during its annual summer Jazz Festival.  I’ll offer a thumbnail sketch of the salient details – lots of men in straw boaters and spangly waistcoats, women of mature years and waistlines (who should have known better) dressed as Prohibition-era floozies, banners advertising performances by The Irwell Valley Stompers and the Kings Lynn Dixie Flyers,  indecent quantities of banjo players and ragged-but-rowdy versions of ‘West End Blues’, ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ and ‘Tiger Rag’ blaring blowsily from every pub in the town…..the horror, the horror…..

This is what we do all too often in this country, I’m afraid.  We take some outstanding overseas product – in this case, early jazz – and we fold, crease, spindle & mutilate it until we have strangled whatever life it may once have had.  As a kid, I recall how this stuff was all over the radio and TV – Acker Bilk, Billy Cotton ,the Black & White Minstrels et al, butchering  this happy street music from a long-lost New Orleans  – ah yes, how can we forget the monochrome, monocultural life of Britain in the 50’s?   How could we have established an Empire that spanned the world and have learned so little?  Too busy trying to export Tunbridge Wells to the rest of the world, probably.

Perhaps because of such childhood traumas, I’ve spent my adult life avoiding Dixieland, as it tends to be called, yet I have a great fondness for the music of New Orleans, particularly if it involves the likes of The Meters or The Neville Brothers or Dr John.  In addition, it’s difficult to investigate New Orleans music of the postwar era for too long without tripping over the name of Allen Toussaint.

Toussaint, now aged 71,  started performing in various local New Orleans r’n’b bands from the mid-50’s onwards and actually recorded a moderately successful album of instrumentals for RCA. However it was as a writer and producer that he had his real breakthrough.  In the 1960’s Toussaint wrote hit songs for the likes of Lee Dorsey (‘Working in a coal mine’), Irma Thomas (‘Ruler of my heart’) and Aaron Neville and, with partner Marshall Sehorn, established a  recording studio and  a number of successful local record labels.  These records were released locally, then often licenced by major companies in New York and Los Angeles for national and international release. This is why Toussaint’s early work  attracted the attention of many English musicians and why songs like  ‘Fortune Teller’ were recorded by many UK bands like the Rolling Stones, The Who and – more recently – by Robert Plant & Alison Krauss.   

Into the 70’s Allen Toussaint relaunched his own recording career with critically-feted albums like ‘From a whisper to a scream‘ and ‘Southern Nights’ , He wrote horn arrangements for The Band’s seminal ‘Rock of Ages’ live album and worked with other non-New Orleans artists, among them Little Feat, Robert Palmer and Boz Scaggs.  He was inducted into the ‘Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’ (though only as a writer and producer, not as a performer) in1998.  He has also been active – like many New Orleans musicians – in trying to promote the city as a tourist destination in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

More recently, he’s worked on  an album with Elvis Costello (which I haven’t heard)  before emerging this year with ‘The Bright Mississippi’, which is a wonderful – and almost totally instrumental – album of songs that go back to the very roots of New Orleans music.  On this album, Toussaint drew on a set of songs that, whilst undoubtedly part of his musical DNA, were not the kind of tunes that would automatically be associated with him. These included songs by jazz greats such as Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, Django Reinhardt, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, and Billy Strayhorn.

For this project, Toussaint has signed up with the Nonesuch label, after appearing on their post-Katrina benefit album ‘Our New Orleans’  (2005).  Nonesuch has emerged in recent years as a prime vehicle for ‘Americana’ and Heritage albums such as this one.  A top-flight band was put together, including Toussaint himself on piano, the excellent Don Byron on clarinet, Nicholas Payton on trumpet plus the remarkable Jay Bellerose (drums) and Marc Ribot (guitar) from Robert Plant & Alison Krauss’ band.  Pianist Brad Mehldau and tenor sax player Joshua Redman also guest on a track each.

And yes, ‘West End Blues’ is there, as murdered by thousands of amateur ‘trad jazz’ enthusiasts on a weekly basis.  St James’ Infirmary’ is there as well and ‘Winin’ Boy Blues’…..the usual suspects are lining up.  For all that, I have to be honest and say that I really like the album.  Possibly it’s the quality of the musicianship or perhaps the way the tunes are arranged that makes a difference. I have a feeling that it might be the fact that the musicians bring their own personalities to bear on the material and concentrate on providing their own version rather than some paint-by-numbers rendition.  Ribot, Byron and Toussaint himself are particularly effective in this context.  The end result is an altogether healthy, organic set of recordings – anyone familiar with Bill Frisell’s ‘Nashville‘ or Cassandra Wilson’s recent recordings will probably understand what I mean by that.

Bet they still won’t be appearing at next year’s Upton Jazz Festival…….

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