Archive: Allen Toussaint
A 2009 encounter with the New Orleans’ master who sadly died last week
As much as I’m a fan of new music and acts, I find that the best interviews or conversations (they are never “chats” – “chats” are what you have with your nextdoor neighbour or someone in your local cafe) are with acts who’ve been around the blocks several times and who have great stories to tell. Yep, I’m a sucker for these exchanges. Sure, some of these stories have been told before or have been re-upholstered and re-embroidered many times before, but those stories are always worth hearing. It’s the original of the species giving you an eye-witness account of what actually happened and how they now remember the experience.
A few years ago, ahead of a show in Dublin, I called up the great Allen Toussaint. I was as nervous as hell – he is one of those musicians whose fingerprints appears on so many great tracks which form the foundations of my favourites records – but Toussaint was generous, polite and engaging. The interview went from Gert Town early days, his first encounters with the mighty ‘Fess and his prolific work as a session player and musician to his collaborations with Elvis Costello and New Orleans after Katrina. There’s much written and spoken about Toussaint since he died suddenly from a heart attack after a show in Madrid last week – I really liked this Bob Lefsetz post on cover versions of his work – so add this archive feature to the list to remember that great, graceful man.
You could listen to that rich, dulcet, wise old voice telling stories like this all day long. The longer the interview goes on, the more memories Allen Toussaint digs up from an eventful past.
Early days in his New Orleans parish and worshipping at the piano of Professor Longhair give way to recording sessions with The Meters and Lee Dorsey and penning songs like “Southern Nights” and “Working in the Coal Mine”. The production gigs when he was the hippest and best gun-for-hire in town lead to the magnificent solo albums. Toussaint really is a one-man repository of the finest American music from the last six decades.
He’s still recording and performing today, still plucking lyrical beauty from amidst a scatter of keys and notes. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Toussaint’s eyes are firmly on the horizon and not resigned to peering over his shoulder.
“I always feel there are many new places to go without dwelling on the past”, he says at one stage. “I have nothing against taking a nostalgic road if that is what you want to do, but I’m not doing that. Sometimes when I’m playing on the piano in the house by myself, I’ll play something from the old days just because I like it. But when I’m playing in front of an audience, I’m playing for that day and not some day gone by.
“You have to have a reason to wake up in the morning and go through your day. If you’re a musician, you wake up to do that and you do so without any thought. I’m as still as excited today about where I’m going with music as I was the first day I touched the piano all those years ago.”
New Orleans shaped him. Music was a constant for the young Toussaint as he ran from pillar to post in the Gert Town neighbourhood. “You’d have men who’d take out their guitar from under their bed after work, sit on their porch and play. Late at night, I’d hear a guy coming home from a bar playing the harmonica and sounding alright.” His father too had the music bug: a railroad mechanic during the week and a trumpet player for local big bands at the weekend.
The family’s first piano arrived when Toussaint was six and a bit. It was intended for his sister, but Toussaint was the one who was truly smitten. “I walked over to it and touched it and there was instant gratification. I had a couple of uncles who’d come over to the house and play some old blues. They only knew a couple of songs each but thankfully, they were different songs. I began to learn some humble kind of playing from watching them.”
By the time he hit his teens, Toussaint’s mind was made up. “Music had found me and this was it forever. Of course, I didn’t know all the ramifications which would have to happen to take me from where I was then to somewhere else, but I knew I’d be doing nothing else come hell or high water”.
He’d listen to the radio and try to play everything he heard. “Young fool that I was, I thought every piano player already knew how to play those songs and I had some catching up to do. I tried to learn everything I heard, waltzs, boogie-woogie, polkas.”
Sometimes, he’d hear someone like Professor Longhair and would stop in his tracks. A spell was cast when Toussaint first crossed paths with that fabled New Orleans music-maker. “Fess captured me in a way I still can’t really explain. It was the most shocking and exciting thing that I had ever heard. He’d play on the radio and I’d try to keep up with him as he went along. He was so profound. I was 16 years old when I finally saw him playing a small piano at a record hop and watched in awe.”
When Toussaint decided to learn his trade in greater depth, he took a pew at Minit Records, rolled up his sleeves and went to work. The late Fifties and early Sixties were great years to be working in the city and Toussaint’s distinctive hooks as a composer and session player appeared on a string of Crescent City anthems from Irma Thomas, Ernie K. Doe and Benny Spellman.
“New Orleans was a very creative and productive place then”, remembers the pianist. “There was always something new coming round the corner. We were on a roll and we really didn’t know where we were going with the music. I mean, I had no idea what I was doing stylistically. My style emerged out of what I was doing and I left it to others to brand me as one style or another.”
When Toussaint wasn’t working with other artists, he was writing, producing and playing on his own records. That run began with “The Wild Sound Of New Orleans” in 1958, took in a couple of great soulful Seventies albums like “Life, Love & Faith” and “Southern Nights” and continues to this very day. Recent releases, like his collaboration with Elvis Costello on “The River In Reverse” or this year’s luminous Joe Henry-helmed “The Bright Mississipi”, are every part as heady as anything from the old days.
“When it came to recording my own music, it was always a little confusing because I didn’t have a definite direction or sound in mind,” says Toussaint. “But I never purposely went in a different direction and I just wrote for the day. I couldn’t evaluate myself in the same way as I evaluated others so there was always some element of confusion in my mind. The music just had to take care of itself and that’s the way it came out on those records.”
His work with Costello seems to have struck a deep chord. “The few times I’ve done collaborations have been mighty fine because I’m on the same wavelength as the other musician, but none of them can compare to Elvis Costello. He’s a gem amongst gems. He has so much that he brings to the table. He’s such a complete entity in itself so working with him is like working with no-one else I’ve ever encountered.”
Toussaint’s latest record (and his first solo album in over a decade), “The Bright Mississipi”, is a largely instrumental album which pays tribute to some of the great jazzmen of old. But when producer Joe Henry first brought the songs to the studio, Toussaint had an admission to make. “There were more songs I didn’t know than I knew. I’d played some before, but I’d never ever played “Solitude” and “Winin’ Boy Blues” before. As much as I knew and liked “St James Infirmary”, I’d never played that before because my life went in another way.”
Toussaint still calls New Orleans home and he has seen many changes in the city over the years. The musicians, though, still keep coming. He talks about new school acts like the Hot 8 Brass Band and the TBC Brass Band as the latest chapter in an never-ending story. “They’re continuing what we were doing, they’re more links in the chain of tradition. I admire what they’re doing and I feel the future of New Orleans music is in good hands with them.”
The city itself is still on the mend after Hurricane Katrina and Toussaint is optimistic for the future. “I feel that Katrina has reminded people that New Orleans still exists”, he notes. “Yes, there is still lots to be done in some of the residential areas which were badly hit. Many of the people who had to migrate to other cities have had a hard time finding a way to come back because their jobs as well as their houses are gone.
“But I still think the future is bright for the city because the spirit of the city has not changed. It’s coming back to itself slowly, but very surely.”