Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Allen Toussaint – American Tunes

On the day of Muhammad Ali’s passing I find myself rolling song to song through a respectful tribute (American Tunes) from New Orleans composer/producer and pianist Allen Toussaint who died November 2015 while on tour in Spain and reflecting on what it was like to live and breathe music and sport during the early sixties.
Ali’s rise to the top of boxing’s heavyweight ranks was a fountainhead of news – every word - poetic proclamation; prediction and knock-out were a source of black pride and white angst. It was push back time – a decade of social upheaval, civil rights activism and much like 2016 summer main event; Clinton/ Sanders vs. Trump – sanity vs. evil.

Underlining the sixties march for civil rights - the voting rights act - desegregation was the accompanying soundtrack – that Philly sound, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and further south, New Orleans.

New Orleans holds particular significance being the land where contemporary music was birthed. Where jazz, blues, funk & soul found common ground and flourished in a city accustomed to turning a blind eye to graft and pleasures of the flesh.

Composer Louis Moreau’s Gottschalk’s destination of Havana and Brazil in mid 1800’s laid the groundwork for the syncopated marriage between African rhythms, European traditions and Latin American influence. It’s heard in everyday music – from the street to the ballroom.

American Tunes is a penetrating view inside the artist and not to be misunderstood as a tour de force of piano brilliance. It’s about the music and musicians that shaped Toussaint’s long productive life as a writer and producer and sideman.

Toussaint was the Ellington of New Orleans. Quiet mannerisms, a statesman like communicator, sharp dressed man and big shiny limousine - a bow and a nod all rewards for decades of commitment to the Crescent City and those finely crafted hit songs.

“Fortune Teller, Get Out Of My Life Woman, Southern Nights, I Like It Like That, Yes We Can Can, Holy Crow, Mother In Law, Working In A Coal Mine, What A Success, Play Something For Me, On My Way Down” – recorded by Lee Dorsey, Devo, Bonnie Raitt, Three Dog Night, Robert Palmer, Little Feat – even a Grammy for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss in 2007 for Raising Sand’s “Fortune Teller,” just a short list of songs that made it into the mainstream of radio play life.

The bar for piano players in New Orleans stands so high you’d need a crane to reach the summit. From the downbeat there was Jelly Roll Morton whose shadow is still wide and long – Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Dr. John, Henry Butler, Toussaint himself, Harry Connick Jr., Ellis Marsalis, David Torkanowsky and the king – James Booker.

Where Toussaint places among the fleet of hands is that of assimilating all the traditions and bringing them to song. What’s been heard on piano is there in melody and harmony - the words an extension of the times and a pastoral portrait of the streets, neighborhoods, night life and surrounding Louisiana landscape. Toussaint plays it straight on American Tunes with few moments of exposition – mostly flowery embellishment over invention.

American Tunes is also a collection of originals and songs of interest – music that shaped Toussaint’s life. Fats Waller’s “Viper’s Rag”, Doc Daugherty’s “ Confession (That I Love You), Professor Longhair’s “Mardi Gras in New Orleans”, Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom”, Bill Evan’s “Waltz for Debby”, Earl King’s “Big Chief”, Duke Ellington’s “Rocks in My Bed”, Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “ Danza op.33” and many others.

American Tunes is slated for release June 10, 2016 – produced by Joe Henry and found on the Nonesuch label distributed by Warner Music Canada.

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