Search This Blog

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Allen Toussaint: The Bright Mississippi


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) The Bright Mississippi; 10) Day Dream; 11) Long Long Journey; 12) Solitude.

General verdict: Consistently brilliant reinventions of old classics — nostalgia at its most creative.

Toussaint's output after his comeback in the Nineties is somewhat chaotic and confusing: mainly collaborations with other artists, ranging from authentic soul people like Billy Preston and Irma Thomas to whitey wannabes (hah!) like Elvis Costello, but also seemingly original recordings that are hard to locate and probably of little interest, such as a Christmas album in 1997. By the mid-2000s, however, he had re-developed some interest in classic jazz, even forming a short-lived team called «Allen Toussaint's Jazzity Project» with which he made an album called Going Places — wasn't any particular place where that sucker went, as far as I know, but it did pave the way for a bigger, grander, and obviously better remembered project: The Bright Mississippi, Toussaint's heartfelt, complex, and overall brilliant tribute to an age when jazz music was your everyday soundtrack, rather than a niche thing enjoyed by intellectual snobs, nostalgists, and non-discerning musical omnivores.

There are no original compositions here, no blatant signs of «modernity», and almost no vocals (other than a bluesy delivery on Leonard Feather's ʽLong Long Journeyʼ). But there is a lot of tasteful, seductive, inspired piano playing on old jazz standards, typically running around 5–6 minutes to achieve complete effect and plunge you into an atmosphere of... well, probably the closest musical analogy I can come up with is those mid-Sixties Duke Ellington records like Far East Suite, which had the distinction, on one hand, of sounding with a «pre-war» vibe, on the other hand, being even more sophisticated, not to mention better produced, than the old Blanton-Webster classics. So, The Bright Mississippi is, on one hand, a thoroughly nostalgic record, but on the other hand, it also tries its hand at rejuvenating some of those sounds — with modern production standards and a sort of felt-rather-than-heard idea of not having to tie yourself down with any old conventions.

Thus, even if ʽWinin' Boy Bluesʼ is credited to Jelly Roll Morton, it is, in fact, much more of an Allen Toussaint original variation on the ʽWinin' Boy Bluesʼ theme — the original was a full-band shuffle with Morton's piano almost inaudible behind the brass section, but this six-minute piece is really a long slab of solo piano improvisation that has Toussaint doing more «rolls» than you'd actually hear on any Jelly Roll Morton LP. Django Reinhardt's ʽBlue Dragʼ is not trying to copy or outdo Django's gypsy chords or Stephane Grappelli's violin moans, but replace them with different piano and acoustic guitar parts that preserve, yet also partially modify and update the spirit of the original in ways that seem surprisingly fresh and vibrant.

That acoustic guitar, by the way, is played by none other than Marc Ribot himself — a clear indication that Toussaint wanted to keep things edgy here, and for that reason he also brought about Brad Mehldau to play extra piano, Joshua Redman to blow some sax, Don Byron to handle the clarinet, and a bunch of other people who are all younger than Toussaint by a good twenty or thirty years but still completely fall in line behind the old man's conducting baton and understand perfectly well what he wants them to do. And what does he want them to do? Well, how about take an original composition by Thelonious Monk, off his fabulous Monk's Dream album way back in 1963, and put the ʽMississippiʼ back into ʽThe Bright Mississippiʼ — by actually making that theme sound all New Orleanian, with a bit of trumpet-piano interplay (instead of sax) that would have surely brought a smile to the face of the late Professor Longhair? Some might say that Toussaint and the boys trivialize these pieces — others might just as reasonably object that they are simply putting them back on the street and breathing real life into them. The only thing that matters, really, is that there's a lot of real reinvention going on here, and this is what elevates The Bright Mississippi over tons of competition.

The whole thing feels so lively that it is not until the decision to end the album with a hushed, guitar-and-piano-only cover of Duke Ellington's ʽSolitudeʼ that you discern some real sadness and nostalgia for a bygone era — a once poignant ode to a lost lover here seems to readdress its poignancy towards something larger and more elusive in scope. We no longer live in the Jazz Age, after all, and even the Mississippi is probably not as bright as it used to be: the grass may not have been greener, but the times were definitely a bit more innocent, and it does not happen often in the 21st century that artists, be they old or young, manage to successfully recapture some of that innocence and make it sound a little deeper, yet just as immediate as it used to be. I hesi­tate to call the album an original masterpiece — but it is a masterpiece of interpretation, and probably Toussaint's single greatest achievement since Southern Nights. And the fact that it became the last original recording to be released in his lifetime is quite impressive, too.

1 comment:

  1. "intellectual snobs, nostalgists, and non-discerning musical omnivores"

    Haha, I must note that I am a HIGHLY discerning musical omnivore.