Elegance and funkiness might seem to be diametrically opposed qualities, but in music, they not only can coexist, but they can blend in ways that they become one and the same. Take a band like the great Cuban charanga ensemble, Orquesta Aragón, whose elegantly funky style combined legato violin lines, trilling flutes, and driving, Afro-Cuban percussion. In New Orleans — where jazz and R&B have been strongly influenced by Cuban music — the late pianist and composer Allen Toussaint was a premier exponent of elegant funk, or funky elegance, if you prefer. On Toussaint’s final recording, he applies that divine dialectic to 14 selections (plus four more on the vinyl version). These “American Tunes” comprise jazz compositions by Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Earl “Fatha” Hines, and Bill Evans; two songs written, and one made famous, by Nawlins legend Professor Longhair; two of Toussaint’s own works, and the Paul Simon number that gives the album its title.
American Tunes is divided between solo piano pieces Toussaint recorded in 2013 at his New Orleans studio and small band performances cut in Hollywood shortly before he died, at 77, from a heart attack after a November 2015 concert in Madrid. Though a major, influential figure in pop — and a top-ranking member of the New Orleans pantheon that extends from Jelly Roll Morton — he’s mostly known as a songwriter, arranger, and producer of other artists. Those who have benefited from his talents are too many to fully list here, but they include Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Aaron Neville, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, the Band, Little Feat, Dr. John, Labelle, the Pointer Sisters, Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey, the Meters, Al Hirt, Herb Alpert and the Rolling Stones.
In the last decade of his life, Toussaint focused more on his own recordings, releasing I Believe to My Soul (2005); The River in Reverse, a collaboration with Elvis Costello (2006); The Bright Mississippi, a terrific mix of traditional and modern jazz compositions (2009); and Songbook, a 2013 release recorded live in 2009 at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan (Toussaint temporarily relocated to New York after losing his house and his recording studio to Hurricane Katrina). American Tunes, like The Bright Mississippi, was produced by Joe Henry, and, like its predecessor, is a mostly instrumental outing that showcases Toussaint’s piano playing. On the ensemble pieces, bassist David Piltch and drummer Jay Bellerose, the rhythm section on The Bright Mississippi, are joined by guitarists Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz (so great together on Lucinda Williams’ recent The Ghosts of Highway 20), and saxophonist Charles Lloyd. Rhiannon Giddens, the gifted and versatile leader of the Carolina Chocolate Drops who last year released her first solo album, shines on two Duke Ellington compositions, the salty, swinging “Rocks in My Bed” and the poignant “Come Sunday”. Van Dyke Parks seconds Toussaint on piano for “Danza, op. 33”, by the 19th Century New Orleans composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and on Toussaint’s own “Southern Nights”.
On American Tunes, the funky-elegant balance is often tilted toward the latter, which may surprise, and even disappoint, some listeners, and especially Professor Longhair fans. Toussaint treats “Mardi Gras in New Orleans”, “Hey Little Girl”, and “Big Chief” (written by Earl King) like etudes for solo piano rather than the ebullient rumba-rock “Fess” delivered, re-harmonizing them and adding interpolations from classical music. In his hands, the party anthem “Mardi Gras” becomes a wistful, post-bacchanal reverie; “Big Chief” turns into a rondo, and “Hey Little Girl”, taken at a slower tempo than in Fess’ version, and with less ornamentation, is more blues serenade than insinuating come-on.
Toussaint deconstructs and re-contextualizes Professor Longhair, but he does something similar with several of the jazz pieces, infusing Earl Hines’ lovely theme “Rosetta”, Fats Waller’s slinky “Viper’s Drag”, and Bill Evans’ much-covered “Waltz for Debbie” with New Orleans flavor. Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom” gets a delicate, reflective reading, with Toussaint accompanied by Charles Lloyd’s sax, while “Southern Nights”, one of the few tunes Toussaint wrote for himself to sing (and a fixture of his concerts), becomes a somewhat ornate instrumental.
American Tunes closes with Paul Simon’s “American Tune”, in a barebones arrangement that foregrounds Frisell’s acoustic guitar, Toussaint’s piano, and his gentle vocal. Toussaint wasn’t a great singer, but here, he’s just about perfect, world-weary and very affecting. And although Joe Henry says there were no indications that Toussaint was suffering from ill health during the recording of what turned out to be his last album, Simon’s lyrics seem all too fitting, even prophetic: “And I dreamed I was dying/And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly/And looking back down at me/Smiled reassuringly.”