An American journey comes to an end with the final album from Allen Toussaint.
One great American journey came to an end last year with the death of Allen Toussaint, the great New Orleans musician, composer and producer. This month saw the release of his final recordings, and they are a reminder of what we’ve lost and what he’s left behind.
No one played New Orleans blues with more dignity and formality than Toussaint. Listening to the opening track – an original he calls ‘Delores’ Boyfriend’ I can see him in his suit and tie, his eternally elegant self. But there’s also a touch of his gentle humour; those teasing pauses at the start, where you know what he’s going to play next but he makes you wait for it; that uplifting key change; and his acknowledgement of the greats who went before him, especially Professor Longhair, who created many of the signature New Orleans licks and who Toussaint himself dubbed ‘the Bach of rock.’
Though Toussaint surely didn’t know this would be his last album, he was clearly in a reflective, almost career-summing mode. And one purpose of the record seems to be to pay respects to his mentors. If Toussaint’s approach to Professor Longhair’s barrelhouse compositions was to formalise them, turn them into almost-classical pieces, the other New Orleans hero he pays homage to here was a classical composer: Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Active in the mid-19th century, Gottschalk had studied music in Paris, but his compositions were inspired not only by the Chopin he heard in Europe but by the drums of Congo Square and folk melodies of the Caribbean. And Toussaint’s approach to Gottschalk’s ‘Danza’ is to give it just a bit less of the Paris salon and a touch more of the New Orleans barrelhouse.
Though Toussaint was a lovely understated vocalist, and of course wrote many lyrical songs, this last album is largely instrumental, and looks beyond the New Orleans he grew up in to jazz heroes like Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.
He also revisits one of his own better-known tunes, ‘Southern Nights’, in a gentle instrumental arrangement. But he saves his voice for the album’s title track, ‘American Tune’. a Paul Simon song, of course, and the lyric seems particularly poignant as Toussaint sings it, as if in conversation with himself, answering his own phrases with thoughtful little runs on the piano. Of course there is an irony here, in that Simon’s so-titled ‘American Tune’ isn’t so American; it has its origins in a chorale from Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion. Yet that’s clearly the kind of synthesis Toussaint appreciated. The meeting of musics - and making it funky - was what he was all about. And this album is ultimately a memorial to that.
Songs featured: Delores’ Boyfriend, Southern Nights, Hey Little Girl, Danza op. 33, American Tune.
American Tunes is available on Nonesuch Records.