Allen Toussaint: The Bright Mississippi (2009)
When asked about Allen Toussaint, Van Dyke Parks once said, "he's the greatest pianist alive, only no one knows it... including him." High praise from one legend to another. With The Bright Mississippi, Toussaint has finally released a jazz-oriented album. Though jazz-influences can be found on many of his rock/funk sides as well as in many of the songs that he has written (including "Whipped Cream," which was morphed into the theme from The Dating Game), arranged and produced, this album, a salute to the timeless music of his hometown of New Orleans is his first foray into jazz. Though he'd never recorded any of them, as a native New Orleanian, Toussaint was well-acquainted with the songs and music that has made The Big Easy synonymous with the phrase "The Birthplace of Jazz."
On The Bright Mississippi, Toussaint re-imagines ("covers" is not the proper descriptive word) classic jazz pieces originally made famous by Jelly Roll Morton ("Winin' Boy Blues"), Sidney Bechet ("Egyptian Fantasy"), Louis Armstrong (the King Oliver-composed "West End Blues"), Duke Ellington ("Day Dream" and "Solitude"), Django Reinhardt ("Blue Drag"), Thelonious Monk (the title track) and many others. Additionally, the CD features Toussaint's versions of the traditional songs "St. James Infirmary" and "Just A Closer Walk With Thee."
Almost entirely instrumental, the CD has the feel, vibe and cadence that only an Allen Toussaint project has. Toussaint, with producer Joe Henry, has crafted a sound that is modern yet traditional, jazzy yet funky, soulful yet pristine and completely elegant. The players chosen by Toussaint and Henry (Nicholas Payton on trumpet, David Pilch on upright bass, Don Byron on clarinet, Marc Ribot on guitar and Jay Bellerose behind the drums) make the recording come alive with a warmth and texture that is usually only heard in live performances.
The Bright Mississippi is a rich and multi-layered CD. Each track deftly mines the musical milieu of what many just categorize as New Orleans music. While the title track has a very funky and somewhat bluesy and soulful 'Nawlins feel, "St. James Infirmary" has a little bit of a country feel under the traditional jazz arrangement. "Singin' The Blues" could easily be heard at Preservation Hall. Each of the twelve tracks, when taken on its own merits, is a lesson in the musical history and expression of the Delta.
To paraphrase producer Henry, the CD is loaded with performances of classic songs that sound both completely fresh and entirely familiar.
Track Listing: Egyptian Fantasy; Dear Old Southland; St. James Infirmary; Singin' the Blues; Winin' Boy; West End Blues; Blue Drag; Just a Closer Walk with Thee; Bright Mississippi; Day Dream; Long, Long Journey; Solitude.
Personnel: Allen Toussaint: piano, vocals; Marc Ribot: acoustic guitar; Don Byron: clarinet; Nicholas Payton: trumpet; David Piltch: upright bass; Jay Bellerose; drums, percussion; Brad Mehldau; piano; Joshua Redman: tenor sax.