Allen Toussaint – Songbook (2013)

by | Oct 27, 2013 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews

Allen Toussaint – Songbook (2013)

Featuring Allen Toussaint, piano & vocals
Studio: Rounder Records 11661-91542-2 [9/24/2013]
Director: Gregory McKean
Video: 16×9 Color
Audio: English PCM 2.0
TrackList: Who’s Gonna Help; Brother Get Further; Sweet Touch Of Love; Holy Cow; Get Out Of My Life, Woman; St. James Infirmary; Shrimp Po-Boy Dressed; Soul Sister; All These Things; We Are America/Yes We Can; The Optimism Blues; Old Records; Certain Girl Medley: Certain Girl/Mother-In-Law/ Fortune Teller/Working In The Coal Mine; It’s A New Orleans Thing; I Could Eat Crawfish Everyday; There’s No Place Like New York; Southern Nights
Extras: Studio interview; Backstage interview
Length: 91 minutes
Rating: *****

For those unfamiliar with New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, Songbook will make them a fan. Recorded live at Joe’s Pub in New York City, this is a masterful solo performance. [We already reviewed the CD version here.]  Comprised mostly of original compositions that have been recorded over the years by different artists, Toussaint breathes new life into these numbers. If this was merely a piano recording, it would be brilliant. Shifting from straight blues to doo-wop, from gospel to r&b, his piano technique is soulful and tastefully presented to an adoring audience.  Piano trills, chord transitions, and complex, stylistic riffs flow from the Steinway. The result is a veritable historical document of New Orleans music. His set reflects the vast career of this legendary musician. Opening the video set is a funky, down home version of the Lee Dorsey hit, “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further”. Toussaint’s voice has a mellow high register tone. But it’s his barrelhouse piano licks that steal the spotlight. He offers brief commentary between songs, and has a self-assured stage presence. Even on lighter material like “Holy Cow” he manages to insert some jaunty solos. His material was covered by many r&b groups. “Get Out Of My Life, Woman” is pure bluesy soul, and his version (there have been many recorded) is exceptional.

Toussaint’s connection to New Orleans’ music scene is important. There is a great medley (and medleys are often very mediocre) that captures the historical context. “Certain Girl/Mother-In-Law/Fortune Teller/ Working In The Coal Mine” is unique, as the transitions between tunes is unnoticeable. Other New Orleans based compositions (“Shrimp Po-Boy Dressed”, “I Could Eat Crawfish Everyday”) deal with the cultural themes of The Crescent City. Jazz has always been an integral part of this region’s musical heritage. Toussaint delivers a resonant instrumental of “St. James Infirmary”. Doo-wop is represented on ”All These Things”. What makes his performance excel is the gospel feel. The final number is “Southern Nights”, which was a huge hit for Glen Campbell. Somehow this flowing, relaxed version (with a lengthy anecdotal introduction) rescues the song from the glitzy, honky-tonk version.

There are extras of both studio and backstage interviews. There is a terrific discussion about the sessions for “Mother-In-Law”. Additionally there is a partial performance of “Lover Of Love”. The insert booklet (which came with the CD/DVD edition) has incisive liner notes by Ashley Kahn and song notes by Paul Siegel. Included is a 1974 black and white photograph of Toussaint and Dr. John (on guitar). Songbook is exceptional, and should produce an avalanche of critical awards.

—Robbie Gerson 

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