Allen Toussaint: American Tunes review
The final track of this fine farewell from one of the great figures of American music is both poignant and pointed, pregnant with political and personal reflection and, of course, eerily prescient. Pianist Allen Toussaint, who died suddenly aged 77 last November shortly after finishing this mostly instrumental recording, takes on Paul Simon’s “American Tune” and updates the 41-year-old song’s tensions and fears in a vulnerable voice informed by the present: “And I dreamed I was dying/I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly/ And looking back down at me/ Smiled reassuringly /And I dreamed I was flying/And high up above my eyes could clearly see/ The Statue of Liberty/ Sailing away to sea…”
It is his only vocal and, as outbursts go, it is like the man - restrained, dignified but resolute in its belief. Over a long distinguished career Toussaint is credited with bringing the mighty music of New Orleans to a world audience in his various roles as performer, songwriter and producer. He was, the New York Times observed, “a soft-spoken embodiment of the city’s musical traditions, revered as one of the master craftsmen of 20th-century American pop”.
This is his second album (again produced by Joe Henry) for the brahminical American record label, Nonesuch, an association which became something of an indian summer for him. The first, 2009’s “The Bright Mississippi”, explored the legacy of his musical forebears with characteristic warmth and flair. This collection is more focused with two distinct strains mirroring the two recording sessions which make up “American Tunes”. The first session features Toussaint paying solo tribute to his New Orleans mentor, the great pianist, Professor Longhair, aka Henry Roeland “Roy” Byrd, while the second session features, among others, the towering and wonderfully old-fashioned voice of Rhiannon Giddens on two Duke Ellington tunes, “Rocks In My Bed” and “Come Sunday”, each driven by a different spirit.
The solo work is elegant and understated but then so is his playing with the small ensemble. As the Atlantic magazine noted, “a Toussaint piano line will be rollicking, effortlessly funky, irresistibly syncopated, but never showy or overdone”. Of the 14 tracks, it is especially hard to resist his own “Delores’ Boyfriend” or his versions of Earl Hines’ “Rosetta” or Earl King’s classic “Big Chief”. In time there will be boxsets and tribute collections, but “American Tunes” is pretty close to a perfect final curtain even if he didn’t plan it that way.