A storied delta pianist makes an album of classic New Orleans tunes, and it may be the best jazz of 2009.
Sometimes jazz is best left in the hands of players who don't normally record as jazz artists. It can be too easy to fall into patterns: melody-solos-melody, an assured set of blues licks, a certain instrumentation.
Allen Toussaint -- the veteran New Orleans pianist, songwriter and producer -- has just made what may be the finest jazz recording of 2009. Toussaint has incredible chops as an accompanist and improviser, but he's not a "jazz" musician. His fame comes from writing rhythm-and-blues hits for folks like the Nevilles and Irma Thomas -- not to mention Eric Clapton, the Band and Otis Redding. He recently wrote and recorded an album with Elvis Costello. And in the 1970s, he was a smash record producer, laying tracks for tunes such as Labelle's "Lady Marmalade".
So, what qualifies him to make a brilliant jazz album?
Toussaint, consciously and unconsciously, has spent his career channeling the influence of jazz into other strains of American music. Being from New Orleans, he obviously drank from the waters that fed the likes of Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, but he also came up in an era of Fats Domino and Art Neville. Toussaint has always played a blues-and-gospel-drenched-piano style that could be thought of as bookending "jazz" proper -- it is as much a raggy pre-jazz style as it is a funky post-jazz style. He's not a jazz player but, arguably, he surrounds jazz. And with The Bright Mississippi, Toussaint has put a big pianistic hug around jazz, particularly the traditional jazz of his native city.
To make it happen, Toussaint joined forces with the producer (and, on his own, brilliant singer-songwriter) Joe Henry. Henry recruited the rhythm section, bassist David Piltch and drummer Jay Bellerose, who are more likely to be found playing with Beck or T-Bone Burnett than with traditional jazz players. The horn section, conversely, consists of modern jazz royalty: trumpeter Nicholas Payton and clarinetist Don Byron. The guitarist sits in-between: the edgy downtown player Mark Ribot, playing all-acoustic here.
Henry has created a mostly intimate affair. Toussaint duets with all the players except Piltch and Bellerose, as well as two special guests in pianist Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman on tenor saxophone. Two tracks feature the rhythm section only, with the full band appearing only on four tracks, one surrounding a sly-blues vocal by the leader. It is a surprising, very different meal that contains of a central theme -- New Orleans jazz -- but also great variety of texture and presentation. It's deeply satisfying, but you don't get up from the table stuffed to the gills.
The full-group tracks are main courses, and ones that drive directly at the core of what Toussaint and Henry are trying to achieve. There is no more heralded piece of New Orleans music than Louis Armstrong's defiant and wise version of "West End Blues". Toussaint brings out new strengths in the tune, which truly sounds like a lament here. Payton plays the famous opening-trumpet cadenza with less virtuosity and more-smearing blues, and the ensemble has a sly sadness about it, even as Toussaint's piano suggests a sparkling counterpoint. The leader's solo is pure blues, sure, but it also has a rippling life: elegant left-hand runs beneath blues tremolos, gorgeous chordal movement, a hopping sense of vitality. Ribot is all-acoustic and raw, even as he plays without jarring modernity. It is a concise thing of beauty.
Sidney Bechet's "Egyptian Fantasy" is played as a jazz march, bold and demonstrative, that absolutely launches Byron's clarinet and Payton's trumpet into gutsy bottle-rocket rides. To our delight, however, these forays are followed by an unaccompanied-piano solo for Toussaint -- fire ad ice. "Singin' the Blues" puts the rhythm section behind just Payton, who plays with rip and charm, with the leader's comping being very nearly as musical and inventive as the lead improvisation. When Toussaint solos, he cops a bit of the style of early jazz players like Fats Waller or Jelly Roll Morton, but a career in rhythm-and-blues assures he is also directly funky from moment to moment.
The tunes without horns give The Bright Mississippi a hip intimacy. "Blue Drag", written by Django Reinhardt, lets Ribot really rip on his acoustic, with Piltch and Bellerose setting up a thumping groove that is nevertheless subtle and relatively quiet. "St. James Infirmary" gets a similar treatment, with Toussaint setting up a cool recurring-piano figure and Ribot scratching out a nearly muted-rhythm part. Toussaint, dainty in stating the melody, gives Ribot freedom to play the blues on his solo, which morphs into a call-and-response conversation between the two voices.
Ribot is gorgeous in duet on "Solitude", the Ellington tune. Both men move around the lush harmonies while still leaving generous space in the arrangement. It's not solemn, however. In his solo, Toussaint opens by quoting the Lionel Hampton tune "Midnight Sun", and Ribot counters by using the same quotation in his solo but over a different set of chords. A less-conventional duet places Toussaint in piano dialogue with the modern player Brad Mehldau, with the younger man happily flowing over the leaders' elegant groove on "Winin' Boy Blues".
The duets with the horn players are utterly irresistible. On "Dear Old Southland", Nick Payton gets the call, starting as a balladeer of lament, then developing a more-hopeful tone as Toussaint comes to life beneath him. The leader's accompaniment sounds sculpted the way a hit record often is -- with the dynamics, variety and specificity all carefully mapped. When Toussaint plays his solo, unaccompanied, the logic and composition inherent in his improvisation reminds us of how meandering the solos on "regular" jazz records sometimes become.
Byron duets with Toussaint on "Just a Closer Walk With Thee". Again, the pianist uses several well-executed licks to set things up, and he sustains the sense of movement by combining classic stride and gospel patterns while Byron plays across the full register of the clarinet. The key: Toussaint accompanies these brilliant jazz musicians much as he would accompany a great singer. It's not about fancy chord changes or tricky patterns -- it's about getting to the blues-root of the song itself. And so he inspires someone like Byron to a gut-wrenching reading of the tune and heartfelt soloing. The same goes for the stunning duet with saxophonist Josh Redman on Duke Ellington's "Day Dream", where Redman gets nudged into testifying with a raspy tone and a feeling of gamble and ease.
If all this is not enough, the disc gives us two quick tracks that crystallize the strengths of all the material. The title track, "Bright Mississippi" is from the Thelonious Monk songbook, but Toussaint and Henry give the tune a down-home treatment, including a shuffling second-line drum groove and an ingeniously syncopated horn arrangement. Every solo -- played incisively over the "Sweet Georgia Brown" chord changes -- is concise and juicy. Then there is "Long, Long Journey", a traditional 12-bar blues sung by Toussaint himself in a lazy and tasty manner -- and featuring subtle, in-the-pocket statements from all the players. The man is not an imposing vocalist, but that's hardly the point. Resist it if you can.
Really, why bother? Allen Toussaint's The Bright Mississippi offers a look backward at our music's roots, but it does so with a keen consciousness of both modern jazz and rhythm-and-blues. It is a jazz record with the impulses of pop, or maybe a roots record with the soaring improvisations of jazz. But it makes little difference how you categorize it -- this is simply wonderful music. Its backbone is the pianism and imagination of its leader, a musician to treasure in 2009.