Allen Toussaint – The Bright Mississippi – Nonesuch

by | Apr 20, 2009 | Jazz CD Reviews | 0 comments

Allen Toussaint – The Bright Mississippi – Nonesuch 480380-2, 61:31 ****:

(Don Byron – clarinet; Nicholas Payton – trumpet; Marc Ribot – acoustic guitar; David Piltch – upright bass; Jay Bellerose – drums, percussion; Brad Mehldau – piano on track 5; Joshua Redman, tenor saxophone on track 10; Joe Henry – producer)

Allen Toussaint is a national treasure and a New Orleans legend. As a producer, solo artist, songwriter, arranger, and session pianist, Toussaint has wielded a tremendous significance on the sound of Crescent City rhythm & blues, and Southern soul in general. On The Bright Mississippi, his first solo album in more than a decade, Toussaint can now add jazz artist to the multitude of creative hats he has worn over his lengthy and prolific career. The Bright Mississippi is a mostly instrumental record which includes songs by jazz greats such as Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, Django Reinhardt, Thelonious Monk, and Duke Ellington, a few traditional standards, and a vocal take on Leonard Feather’s "Long, Long Journey."

Although the album is steeped in Delta and Big Easy cadences, the genesis for The Bright Mississippi does not, ironically, reside with long-time New Orleans resident Toussaint, but rather with Southern California producer Joe Henry, who worked with Toussaint on previous projects, including the 2006 Toussaint/Elvis Costello collaboration The River in Reverse and the 2005 Gulf Coast benefit undertaking, Our New Orleans. Although Toussaint was familiar with much of the material, having grown up listening to many of the songs covered here, he had never attempted putting such ageless classics onto tape, and it was Henry’s suggestion that got the ball rolling. The result is one of the finest releases of Toussaint’s extensive, storied discography.

Much credit goes to Joe Henry, who chose the renditions, rounded up a stellar backing band, and provided his typically warm and sympathetic recording supervision, using a live-in-the-studio approach that furnishes a setting where the musicians operate together within a close-knit environment simmered with distinctive articulation.

Highlights are many. The opening version of Sidney Bechet’s "Egyptian Fantasy" features a soaring duet between clarinetist Don Byron and trumpeter Nicholas Payton that is as exciting and as authentic as anything from the turn of the century, while Toussaint and drummer Jay Bellerose contribute a steadily accented rhythm. Louis Armstrong’s iconic "Dear Old Southland" is adorned by several stirring Payton solos and Toussaint’s understated and nimble keyboards, and is enhanced by a slight tango flavoring, which helps bring out the tune’s pungent Creole characteristic.

One of the most famous numbers is "St James Infirmary," the story of a lover’s death that has become an American hallmark nearly as ubiquitous as pecan pie or candied yams, and has been covered by everyone from Cab Calloway to the White Stripes and, of course, Louis Armstrong. Toussaint deftly handles the melancholy blues tune with assured piano rolls that are never overdone, and which are artfully silhouetted by Bellerose’s tapping percussion and Marc Ribot’s Django-esque acoustic guitar.

"St James Infirmary" is an excellent prelude to a trio of blues interpretations. Toussaint is sublime on "Singin’ the Blues," which features a slowly swinging Payton trumpet solo. Payton and Ribot also sway sweet and low during a meditative take of King Oliver’s "West End Blues," which alludes to New Orleans’s funeral marching-band legacy. Even better, though, is a piano duet between Toussaint and Brad Mehldau on Jelly Roll Morton’s "Winin’ Boy Blues," a splendid achievement that should raise anyone’s appraisal of Toussaint’s keyboard skill. Mehldau shows a more playful stride than his usual studious side, and the two pianists weave chords and notes brilliantly.

There are numerous other moments worthy of attention, including Ribot’s impeccable six-string work on Django Reinhardt’s "Blue Drag"; a spirited reading of the Thelonious Monk title track; and two Duke Ellington scenarios, "Day Dream" and closer "Solitude," which perfectly embody the pensive part of Ellington’s personality. "Solitude" also acts as a lingering and memorable good-night to the program.

Henry’s dexterous producer’s touch is superb. The recording is rich in detail, every instrument sharply etched in the stereo spectrum, the highs and lows breathtakingly captured, and the overall tone is both confident and comfortable. Henry’s ear for specifics and nuance gives the crystal-clear digital quality an intimate, analog-like affection and he avoids either an insincere historical viewpoint or an inapt contemporary outlook, choosing instead a timeless, classic-sounding perspective.

TrackList:

1. Egyptian Fantasy
2. Dear Old Southland
3. St. James Infirmary
4. Singin’ the Blues
5. Winin’ Boy Blues
6. West End Blues
7. Blue Drag
8. Just a Closer Walk with Thee
9. Bright Mississippi
10. Day Dream
11. Long, Long Journey
12. Solitude

— Doug Simpson

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