It’s still with a heavy heart that I have to write that American Tunes is the final batch of recordings that Allen Toussaint was working on before his death back in November 2015. The album marks his seventh decade in the music business, an amazing feat, which brings his career back full circle in recording a mostly instrumental album. In 1958, under the name Tousan, he recorded an album with some of NOLA’s finest musicians to create the rocking instrumental The Wild Sound Of New Orleans.
So busy was Allen Toussaint in the wake of his late-2000s revival, he didn't wind up entering a recording studio to begin work on a sequel to his 2009 jazz album, The Bright Mississippi, until 2013 (2013's Songbook consisted of live recordings from 2009). A few solo sessions happened that year, followed by a round with a band and guests in October 2015 and then he died a few weeks later, passing away in Madrid, Spain while on tour. Producer Joe Henry, who helmed The Bright Mississippi, pulled together American Tunes for a posthumous release in the summer of 2016.
His final studio album proves an affecting swansong from the late New Orleans composer, producer, pianist and legend. Here Toussaint treats jazz classics by Fats Waller, Billy Strayhorn, Bill Evans and others to his intricate yet funky piano skills, much as he did on 2009’s The Bright Mississippi. Rhiannon Giddens adds muscular vocals to a brace of Duke Ellington tunes, but it’s mostly a low-key, instrumental affair.
American Tunes is a posthumous album from Allen Toussaint, who, though he had a six decade-long musical career, began his work as a regular touring live performer began in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina claimed most of his possessions and his recording studio in its destructive wake. Toussaint’s responsible for infusing the syncopated pianos of ragtime jazz and boom-bap style swing into New Orleans funk and rock, but his just-released collection does not necessarily reflect that level of innovation. However it highlights the iconic musical pioneer’s ability to lightly repurpose some of his favorite and most well-worn influences into his distinctive style.
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.
If New Orleans is the source of America's greatest musical gumbo, Allen Toussaint was one of our master chefs. Before his death last year, Toussaint had worked with numerous local heroes, including Ernie K-Doe and Dr. John, and added some Crescent City stardust to collaborations with Paul McCartney and The Band. American Tunes gathers his final recordings into a dazzling survey of 20th Century piano masterworks, with compositions by Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Bill Evans all given Toussaint's immaculate light swing; three songs associated with his mentor, Professor Longhair, spotlight the sparkling melodies at their core, rather than the more obvious house-rocking grooves.
When 77-year-old Allen Toussaint suffered a fatal heart attack in his hotel room in Madrid during a European tour on 10 November last year, it seemed as if a significant and irreplaceable part of New Orleans’ musical heritage had ineluctably died with him. Toussaint’s opulent harmonic approach with its jaunty melodies, extravagant trills, swirling arpeggios and strutting stride inflections harked back to the florid piano style of Crescent City legend Professor Longhair as well as the rolling rhythmic gait of Fats Waller’s idiomatic touch. Both those Big Easy music mavens are honoured by Toussaint on this, his final album, which pays homage to some of America’s great songwriters and musicians.
Like the great New Orleans singer-songwriter Allen Toussaint’s 2009 album The Bright Mississippi (a tribute to classics by jazz giants from Bechet to Monk), this set, completed just before its creator’s death last November, is a gently personal slice of Americana. You can hear it in the steady ragtime bounce of Fats Waller’s Viper’s Drag, Professor Longhair’s Hey Little Girl, Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debby (played as a conga-coaxed Latin shuffle) and the Paul Simon anthem behind the album title, with its segues of American history and personal struggle, sung with an awed resolve by Toussaint himself. It’s mostly instrumental (Toussaint’s keyboard style has a trilling, Jelly Roll Morton-like daintiness and debonair swagger), though guests including saxophonist Charles Lloyd and guitarist Bill Frisell add contemporary ambiguities to Billy Strayhorn’s Lotus Blossom and Ellington’s Come Sunday.
Allen Toussaint sings just once on his final album, “American Tunes,” but it’s a moment worth savoring. The song is Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” a secular hymn of perseverance, and he starts out solemn, backed only by an acoustic guitar. He waits a full two minutes before tolling a chord at the piano, as punctuation for the first line of the bridge: “And I dreamed I was dying.” He plays it on the offbeat, naturally.