Monday, January 23, 2012

Crescent City Gumbo: Allen Toussaint and Dr John

Bourbon Street by Debra Hurd

My recent post on Texas music got me in the mood for another slice of Americana.  The one thing that is beyond dispute, regardless of what conclusions you draw about American politics (Newt? You’ve got to be kidding!), its late Imperialistic tendencies, fast food and big cars, guns and reality TV, the recent smashing of MegaUpload and the grossly misnamed World Series (!), Americans know how to groove.

New Orleans is a city I’d like to spend more time in.  My only visit was for too short but the Crescent City is a place even those who don’t know it well, think they know well.  It’s got that special aura of a very welcoming funky city. It was  a destination my friends and I often thought about for Spring Break and though poverty made the trip impossible I just knew it would be place I could get along in.

You certainly couldn’t grow up on American music without knowing about New Orleans. The birthplace of jazz and Louis Armstrong and home to a number of blues, jazz and R&B musicians too high to count.  For me it was Dr John’s funky Right Time, Right Place that stood out from all the other radio noise in the early 70’s.  His voice seemed to ooze out from under the earth and conjured up an image of a dancing troll in my teenaged mind.

Years later friends of mine had a band that seemed forever stuck in the ‘cult sensation’ twilight zone: cool to a huge bunch of fans but never able to get the break through hit.  In a final attempt to go for gold, The Wallets ($5 to whoever remembers them), got Allen Toussaint, to produce a record.  Sadly, though the music shimmered and snapped off the wax even the Wizard of New Orleans was unable to get the big labels to open their wallets.

Tonight I share two utterly brilliant albums by the two aforementioned musical Einsteins.

Allen Toussaint, (pointing at you above)  is simply one the most influential and important producers and musicians of popular music in America. He began his career playing in bands in and around New Orleans but made his name in the 1960s as a producer of great R&B artists like Aaron Neville, The Meters, Ernie K Doe, Lee Dorsey and Irma Thomas. He also wrote a string of hit songs, which others sang and which have made his older years more comfortable.  His songs were covered by everyone (yes, no exaggeration) from the Yardbirds, to Otis Redding and from the Rolling Stones and the O’Jays. In 1998 he was inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.

So in demand was he as a producer of the highest quality and creativity, that his own recording career dimmed and was almost forgotten. But in 2009 he emerged again with a gorgeous record of jazz songs, The Bright Mississippi, written by some of the greats of American music, (Ellington, Monk, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton). His interpretations of them are simply stunning. I’ve listened to this album over and over the past several days.  Leading a star studded cast of New Orleans musicians like Nicholas Payton (trumpet), Marc Ribot (guitar) Don Byron (clarinet) Toussaint’s piano playing is assured, polished and relaxed. "He's the greatest pianist alive, only no one knows it... including him." So says, Van Dyke Parks, a not to shabby referee.

Dr John, the King of New Orleans, has been a friend and colleague of Allen Toussaint’s for years. And while I keep trying, it is proving impossible to select a favorite Dr John album.  But Duke Elegant is one of the best and fits nicely with The Bright Mississippi. Like that album it is a personal tribute to jazz, in this case the music of Duke Ellington.  Where Toussaint’s album is a quiet one, almost meditative, Duke Elegant takes some of Ellington’s most famous songs and attaches them to a R&B/funk machine that is running hot. What comes out is not jazz but it certainly is elegant.

         Track Listing:
         Bright Mississippi
            01 Egyptian Fantasy
02 Dear Old Southland
03 St. James Infirmary
04 Singin' the Blues
05 Winin' Boy Blues
06 West End Blues
07 Blue Drag
08 Just A Closer Walk with Thee
09 Bright Mississippi
10 Day Dream
11 Long, Long Journey
12 Solitude

Listen here.

            Track Listing:
            Duke Elegant
            01 On the Wrong Side of the Railroad Tracks
02 I'm Gonna Go Fishin'
03 It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)
04 Perdido
05 Don't Get Around Much Anymore
06 Solitude
07 Satin Doll
08 Mood Indigo
09 Do Nothin' 'Til You Hear From Me
10 Thing's Ain't What They Used to Be
11 Caravan
12 Flaming Sword

Listen here.

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