Or: Allen Toussaint Plays Folk Songs
Fats Waller’s 1934 recording of “Viper’s Drag” is a dazzling feat of economy; a wonder of concision. In a compact two minutes and 47 seconds, Waller twists a roadhouse blues into a vaudevillian shuffle, then snaps it back into its original shape. It’s a peep show, a night at the opera, and a miracle of modern physics, all rendered with just ten fingers and 88 keys. Allen Toussaint’s American Tunes version adds drums, bass, and about half a minute of total runtime. It dispenses with the quiet-to-loud dynamics of the original, replacing it with rock and roll thrills, sultry Nawlins gait, and razor-edged acoustic trio dynamics that recall nothing so much as the kitchen-sink clang and clatter of the classic Thelonious Monk Trio album on Prestige. (Drummer Jay Bellerose, with his shake rattle and roll, mines his kit for sound effects and swing just as surely as Roach and Blakey did; Dave Piltch, meanwhile, is frankly a better bass player than most of the ones Monk worked with.) Toussaint’s the anchor and the voice, even though he never opens his mouth: His piano has only ever seemed like a conduit for his easygoing humanity, and even when he’s running the board in ruthless imitation of his stride piano heroes his music can only be described as gentle, unfussed over, charming. He’s a natural, and he opens up “Viper’s Drag” like God rending the heavens, humor and blues, swing and surrealism pouring out of it. It, too, feels like a song that suspends everything we thought we knew of time and space and gravity: Toussaint’s trio stretches the song farther than you’d think it might go, ringing every bit of Waller’s cartooniness out of it and transforming it into a symphony in miniature.
This, basically, is what Toussaint does with the American songbook, what he’s done now over the course of two largely instrumental, Joe Henry-produced albums. The Bright Mississippi, released in 2009, was the full flowering of his jazz dream, even if it hardly played like a straight jazz record. Toussaint and his band played songs rooted in a specific piece of real estate—classics by Monk and Ellington, Django and Jelly Roll—that evoked the landscapes of Allen Toussaint’s New Orleans while conjuring the ghosts, the real and imagined spiritual and cultural geography of the place that lurked just below the surface. The album felt classical in its structure, even when the band kicked up some dirt, which it did plenty; its clean lines weren’t enough to contain its sense of the mystic, which boiled over in the airy, weightless innuendos of Toussaint’s “St. James Infirmary.” The record’s strange and bewitching magic is still unparalleled, and seems to stem from Toussaint’s treatment of those songs as pieces of folklore—maps and legends, yarns and tall tales passed down from mother to daughter and father to son, stories and rambles in which the virtue wasn’t in any punchline so much as in how every raconteur told them a bit differently. Toussaint told them better than most, and in a way that only he ever could: Nowhere else does New Orleans jazz move so gaily to the simmering groove of elegant R&B.
American Tunes is a more diverse and inclusive album. It’s more eclectic in its source material, its geographic reach, and in the forms it represents. Toussaint is heard here in solo piano, acoustic trio, quintet, and even vocal presentations, each one a tradition with its own implications and baggage, each one engaged and remade in Toussaint’s own image. So are the compositions he plays, which include three Ellington cuts, some Professor Longhair staples, a bit of Earl “Fatha” Hines, the Waller tune, one from Paul Simon, and even a couple of cuts from Toussaint’s own pen, casually assertive of his own place among these assembled luminaries. (It’s worth noting that a duo performance of “Moon River,” featuring Toussaint playing with Bill Frisell, is available only as a “bonus” cut on the LP version, but adds so much depth and context to the record and is a gem in its own right, a sweet and soulful communion that could have fit the classic Bill Evans/ Jim Hall set Undercurrent.) True to what Jelly Roll used to say about jazz music, American Tunes feels awash with ideas yet it’s too rough and ragged to ever feel cerebral. Its pleasures aren’t brainy; they’re tactile, kinetic.
Where The Bright Mississippi felt clean and purposeful, American Tunes is more of a patchwork mosaic. Recorded in a couple of different sessions—the solo piano stuff was made at Toussaint’s home studio, some full-band arrangements many months later in Los Angeles—the record is winsomely ramshackle. The songs gain power by their intermingling, and the sequencing ensures some thrilling jukebox transitions: Listen to how the bawdy blues “Rocks in My Bed” melts into the opulence of “Danza, op. 33,” how the delicate glide of “Waltz for Debbie” is stopped in its tracks by the barrelhouse pianism of “Big Chief,” how a dreamy remake of “Southern Nights” answers the white-hot intensity of “Come Sunday” with three minutes of Sabbath rest. The cumulative effect of the record is impressionistic: Each song feels like its own stark color, and the big picture is in how they all swirl together.
Of course the reason to hear this record—the thing that makes it essential to anyone who cares about the rich tapestry of American song—isn’t how deep and wide Henry and Toussaint go in sourcing this material, but rather how completely Toussaint can bend it to his will. This is most evident on the solo piano numbers, the ones that really seem to play fast and loose with motion and space, with light and kinetics. His skill as an interpreter is informed by his craft as a songwriter: He knows how a tune works, how to unravel it without losing sight of its central thread. His take on “Big Chief” is a two-minute concerto that comes barreling out of the gate: He pulls the melody through brawny blues, front-parlor elegance, and then a haunted dream sequence. It ends where it begins, and he bangs on the keys a few times as punctuation. He takes the stride piano prowl out of “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” and reveals a melody of striking lyrical beauty; it feels like the song you play as the last bits of confetti fall, and your heart quiets in peaceful anticipation of Ash Wednesday’s rest. One of the set’s two original numbers, “Delores’ Boyfriend,” captures the quiet beauty of an evening amble, the dignity of taking a stroll to no where in particular. Its chief pleasure is in how it builds a full head of steam, then simmers back down again.
The trio songs—Toussaint recording with Bellerose and Piltch—may be the heart of the record. There is “Viper’s Drag,” of course, another great showcase for Toussaint’s songwriter’s ear: He doesn’t refashion the tune so much as sketch out all of its rooms, revealing them to be more spacious than Waller’s madcap performance ever suggested. It’s a true dialogue, in particular with Bellerose, who provides the locomotive beat while Toussaint scats across the tracks. The song’s earthiness masks its elegance; it sounds so much like a burlesque that you almost don’t notice it’s really a pocket symphony, played with just three instruments. “Waltz for Debbie,” meanwhile, conjures all the sweet romance and delicate trio action of Bill Evans’ Village Vanguard band—Piltch’s upright bass answers Toussaint’s piano lines, Bellerose adds sublime cymbal dissolves—in such a way that you could almost miss how completely Toussaint overhauls the tune: Note that it never actually shifts into waltz time. “Confessin’ (That I Love You)” traces Pops’ on-the-melody crowd-pleasing through the carefree stroll of Mingus’ “My Jelly Roll Stroll.” All three of those cats knew that the calling card of New Orleans music is how it’s unanswerable to anyone else’s timetable, how it moves freely without every working up a sweat. When the song breaks down into three-way conversation, it reveals what’s best about jazz as a form: How it’s a music of singular purpose but a multitude of individual voices.
Van Dyke Parks shows up a couple of times on the record, pushing the record into still further formal diversity, adding critical squares to its patchwork mosaic. He and Toussaint turn Creole composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “Danza, op. 33” into a hot summer night’s dream, Parks’ orchestration and Bellerose’s swirl of cymbals soundtracking stars appearing on by one in the pitch black; it fades away, and is answered by the sly come-ons of “Hey Little Girl,” another great juxtaposition of the record’s sophistication and its sensuality. The counterpart to “Danza” is a two-piano take on “Southern Nights,” which Glen Campbell turned into a country song but Toussaint himself recorded as a good-natured trip. Here the drugginess is dropped for a childhood rhapsody, a summertime reverie. These songs aren’t larks or distractions: As with so many of these songs, they feel modest in their intentions yet crucial to the fabric of the record.
Three Duke Ellington numbers are here, too, and they push the record’s marriage of earthiness and elegance in new directions. “Rocks in My Bed” is what Toussaint’s old pal Lowell George might have called an eloquent profanity, a trashy little backwater blues that’s gussied up for a night on the town. Rhiannon Giddens is on hand to deliver the lyric as a psalm of lamentation, and she sings it like a jilted lover who’s just been dealt one indignation too many. Toussaint, who spent so much of his career in a supporting role, does some of his most spirited and adventurous playing when he’s got a vocalist to take the spotlight, and here he adds all the right set dressing: Blues, swing, and cheerful humor. Bellerose keeps his tambourine shaking, but it’s his kickdrum and rimshots that make the song a banger. The showstopper for Giddens is “Come Sunday.” She steps into the Mahalia Jackson role here, and her precision and formal control have never been more valuable. It’s another song of ascent, a prayer lit up by fire and tribulation; she’s looking for the promised land, and she makes every word land. Duke wrote the song as a spiritual but also a kind of a séance, and here there are several voices called and raised—voices from church songs, slave songs, work songs, freedom songs. It all points to jazz, and Charles Lloyd sends up a sublime sax solo as commiseration and benediction. The song feels like a holy moment where ash and clay are kissed by heaven, though its place on the album could just as easily been occupied by “Freedom for the Stallion,” Toussaint’s own spiritual sequel. “Lotus Blossom” may be the key to this whole thing, a song of such aching, impressionistic beauty that you could almost believe Toussaint wrote it himself. It’s ravishing, and toward the end Frisell offers a direct statement of the melody while Toussaint plucks out a gentle lullaby.
American Tunes is a much-delayed follow-up to The Bright Mississippi; Henry pursued it for years; the sessions finally happened, and days later Toussaint was gone. The burden of the album is that it must stand now as his epitaph and the capstone of his legacy; the glory of it is that it was never intended as such and never sounds like it. Too teeming with life for it to ever sound morbid or self-consciously grave—too awash in good humor, cheerful camaraderie, and sensual pleasure—Toussaint plays the whole record with a kind of stately leisure that suggests he has all the time in the world. And in that sense, perhaps it is a fitting final chapter—an album that reveals Toussaint as a prism through which so many stripes of American song must pass; as a performer whose softspoken and open-hearted humanity cannot be divorced from the wide mercies and inclusiveness of his music; and as a recording artist and composer whose gift was in how hard we worked to make everything sound easy. American Tunes compresses an entire spectrum of American folk song, and it seems here to exist within Toussaint himself, a man who contains multitudes. He ends it with his lone vocal contribution to the album, on Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” He dreams that he’s dying, and if that’s where he left us the album might be unbearable—but like “Come Sunday,” this one winds down with work left to be done, even the holy vocation of song; even amidst weariness, the record remains ever bright and bon vivant. He leaves us, then, with these songs talking amongst themselves, an endless river ever bending, and so much music still to be made.