Recording of July 2016: American Tunes
RECORDING OF THE MONTH
By: Robert Baird • Posted: Jun 14, 2016
Allen Toussaint: American Tunes
David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Phife Dawg, Merle Haggard, Dan Hicks, Ernestine Anderson, Lonnie Mack, Maurice White, Blowfly, Otis Clay, Steve Young, George Martin, Keith Emerson, Henry McCullough, Prince. Was there a genre or subgenre of music that did not grieve in the closing months of 2015 through spring 2016—a period that must rank among the most devastating ever for the loss of important and influential songwriters and musicians?
In New Orleans, that most essential city of American music, the loss has been especially keen since the passing, in November, of Allen Toussaint, 77, from a heart attack following a concert in Madrid, Spain. In a career that lasted more than 60 years, Toussaint did it all: songwriter, performer, A&R rep, record producer, and owner of a record label and a recording studio. He collaborated on albums with Paul McCartney (Venus and Mars) and Elvis Costello (The River in Reverse). He provided horn arrangements for the Band's Rock of Ages, and The Last Waltz. He and his partner, Marshall Sehorn, employed a house band at Sea-Saint Studios, in New Orleans, consisting of Art Neville, George Porter, Leo Nocentelli, and Zigaboo Modeliste—an amazing quartet that later became the Meters, the funkiest and most influential of all New Orleans bands.
Although providing a steady, paying gig for the Meters is, all by itself, unbelievably sweet and weighty cred, perhaps the best thing about Toussaint was that, in a town filled with colorful if less-than-savory characters, he was a class act as a musician and as a human being. It's fitting, then, that his final recording project, American Tunes, completed just before his death, is a work of great taste and decorum. Almost entirely instrumental, with just Toussaint at his piano, the album was recorded in two sessions: at his home studio, in New Orleans; and in Los Angeles, with such musicians as Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz, Van Dyke Parks, Charles Lloyd, and singer Rhiannon Giddens (though the instrumental accompaniment is spare throughout). The album is a fantastic and esoteric tour through the Great American Songbook, as selected by the old master himself. Both sessions were produced by Joe Henry, who worked with Toussaint on his next-to-last studio album, Bright Mississippi, which was our "Recording of the Month" for July 2009.
The other thing that Toussaint was throughout his entire life was New Orleans piano professor—perhaps the last in a long, distinguished line, and a skill often obscured by his many other talents. It's natural, then, that after a performance of Toussaint's own "Delores' Boyfriend," American Tunes continues with two songs associated with rent-party luminary Thomas "Fats" Waller: the Waller original "Viper's Drag," then "Confessin' (That I Love You)," a robust, good-time tune also associated with Louis Armstrong, who recorded it often. Accompanied only by drummer Jay Bellerose and bassist David Piltch, the rhythm section from the L.A. sessions, Toussaint proceeds at a jaunty pace, capturing some of the number's trademark sassiness.
This album is being billed as Toussaint's tribute to Henry Byrd, aka Professor Longhair. In one of Fess's best-known tunes, "Mardi Gras in New Orleans," Toussaint shows what a great interpreter and arranger he was by draining the song of its usual manic energy and chugging pace, and remaking it as a fabulous, spacious jazz number taken at leisurely pace, with a vibe of "summertime, and the livin' is easy." The relation of Toussaint's refashioning of the song into a near ballad with a simple ending and final chord coda, to Fess's famous party hymn, is at best tangential—and, for that, it's almost unspeakably wonderful. Toussaint's love and understanding of Fess's music is unequaled. Not even Dr. John could pull off something that sounds this offhand and yet is so intricately constructed. And no whistling! Bravo!
Three tracks later, Toussaint gives a more or less straight reading, ornamented with plenty of Fess-like trills, of Earl King's "Big Chief"—which, after "Mardi Gras in New Orleans," is Byrd's next-best-known tune. He also hews close to the original version in the third Longhair tune here, "Hey Little Girl," originally recorded as part of the Professor's landmark 1949 and 1953 sessions for Atlantic Records, later released on the LP New Orleans Piano (1972).
At another point here, Toussaint takes on another very different player, Bill Evans, and his "Waltz for Debby." Adding a light broth of New Orleans funk, he transforms another tune inextricably associated with the artist who created it into his own seriously arranged but joyously played frolic. There's a lightness and a masterful playfulness to the entire album that make it an appealing epilogue to Toussaint's career.
There are also three Ellington numbers: "Lotus Blossom" (by Ellington's great collaborator Billy Strayhorn), "Come Sunday," and "Rocks in My Bed,"the last two of which include the rich, expressive singing of Rhiannon Giddens, of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Oddly enough, Toussaint's reading of his own "Southern Nights," perhaps his biggest hit single, is strangely disengaged and meandering. Perhaps, with that tune, he'd already said everything he had to say.
While American Tunes is very much Part Two of Bright Mississippi—which included covers of tunes by Django Reinhardt, Thelonious Monk, and Jelly Roll Morton, among others—the music chosen here seems a little closer to Toussaint's heart. He had more to say on a number of these songs, particularly in the finale, Paul Simon's "American Tune," where he sings his final lines on record:
You can't be forever blessed
Still tomorrow's going to be another working day
And I'm trying to get some rest
That's all, I'm trying to get some rest.
Read more at http://www.stereophile.com/content/recording-july-2016-american-tunes#0WCWayv7CKV7EUyk.99
Allen Toussaint's 'American Tunes' album caps a distinguished career
By Randy Lewis
Allen Toussaint’s email to producer Joe Henry arrived unexpectedly last fall. The message from the veteran New Orleans producer, songwriter, pianist and arranger was short and to the point.
“He wasn’t a man who used e-mail conversationally,” Henry said. “He responded like a man who was sending a telegram and paying by the word. For him to write me out of the blue was very unusual.”
Toussaint, in Switzerland at the time, was writing to express a recent obsession with playing “Lotus Blossom,” a work from composer Billy Strayhorn.
The track is part of Toussaint’s “American Tunes” album, released June 10, in which Toussaint applies his distinctive pianistic touch to a choice selection of songs by Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Professor Longhair and Paul Simon, among several others.
The goal with “American Tunes” was to create an extension of the work Henry and Toussaint had done in 2009 on the album “The Bright Mississippi.” On that collection, Toussaint interpreted compositions by jazz greats including Jelly Roll Morton, Django Reinhardt, Thelonious Monk, Sidney Bechet, Ellington and Strayhorn.
“We were both intent on expanding that conversation, which was complete unto itself,” Henry said. “We were not interested in simply creating a Part 2.”
Like many who knew Toussaint personally, or just through his music, Henry was stunned to receive word on Nov. 10 that Toussaint had suffered a heart attack and died at age 77 shortly after a performance in Madrid.
His death makes the arrival of “American Tunes” all the more poignant, both for those who worked on it and for fans of the extensive body of work he left behind as one of the prime architects of New Orleans R&B, funk and rock music over the last 60 years.
He wrote, produced, arranged and/or played on a number of hits. Among them: the Pointer Sisters’ “Yes We Can Can,” Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights,” Lee Dorsey’s “Working in the Coal Mine,” Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-in-Law” and “A Certain Girl,” Benny Spellman’s and, later, the Rolling Stones’ “Fortune Teller,” Irma Thomas’ “It’s Raining” and the instrumental “Java,” which trumpeter Al Hirt turned into a pop hit.
No one suspected during the “American Tunes” recording sessions last year that it would turn out to be Toussaint’s final musical statement.
In fact, just after those sessions wrapped, before heading to Europe for a series of performances, he was given a clean bill of health by his doctors, one of his close associates told The Times after his death.
What started with Toussaint spotlighting the songs of his New Orleans role model, Henry Roeland “Roy” Byrd, aka Professor Longhair, soon expanded into a far-reaching exploration of music from many of the greatest American composers of the previous century and a half, most of them African American.
“We’d been trying to imagine how to do that authentically for the past six years,” Henry said. “Beyond that, there was something absolutely cosmic to me to the fact that for everybody we wanted to be involved, there was really only one window in the foreseeable present time that we all might be in a room together.
“After he passed, I was keenly aware of how close we came to not getting there,” he said. “I was as gratified as I was rattled by that.”
Singer Rhiannon Giddens echoed Henry’s sentiments. She brought her broad-based roots in African American string band music, American country and folk, Celtic music and operatic singing to bear in her vocals on two Ellington compositions — “Rocks in My Bed” and “Come Sunday.
“I knew he was this mythic figure, but it was so neat to meet him,” she said in a separate interview. “It was amazing to me to take in: Here’s this incredible individual, who was obviously a very spiritual man, and when I walked in, oh my God, he set me at ease immediately. The whole recording studio was filled with that energy.
“That’s how I interacted with him: Here’s an artist of the highest order, and I get to do this thing and try not to mess it up.”
Henry recalled a moment after Giddens had sung “Come Sunday.” She expressed concern that she sounded too classical and not earthy enough.
“Allen’s response was immediate and heartfelt on behalf of African American composers,” Henry said. “He said it’s important that people understand that African American music is so much more than just gut-bucket blues, and that there is a long history of African American singing classical interpretation of the spirituals. And he said that the way she had sung it was absolutely perfect.”
The album also gave Toussaint the opportunity to reconnect with composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist Van Dyke Parks, who during his stint as head of talent development at Warner Bros. Records in the 1970s brought Toussaint to the attention of label president Mo Ostin. Parks plays on two cuts, one of which is his arrangement of Gottschalk’s “Danza.”
“I cannot tell you how moved I was,” Parks said. “It absolutely was a defining moment for me, and I was lucky to be there … to be part of that adventure.”
The other is perhaps Toussaint’s most directly autobiographical song, “Southern Nights,” which he wrote after Parks challenged him decades ago to “write something that defines you, that you want people to associate with you when you die.”
Then there is the album’s closing number, Simon’s “American Tune,” which Simon wrote in 1973 during the height of the Watergate scandal.
Simon’s song questioned the state of the union and Toussaint picked up on its latter-day relevance and began including it in his shows after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast in 2005. He recorded a version for a 2007 Paul Simon tribute album.
I don’t know a soul that’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
But it’s all right, it’s all right
The song, Toussaint told former Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn, who is at work on a Simon biography, “is one of the finest ever, of anyone’s songs, anywhere.
“’He said things in that song [that were so profound] you could [spend a] school semester on that song, I would think, from what it says, and what he saw,’ ” Toussaint told Hilburn.
It’s the only song on the new album that includes Toussaint’s voice as well as his piano playing, an element Henry felt was crucial to the collection.
“It turns out it was the next-to-last thing he ever recorded in a studio,” Henry said. “When we sat down to listen back to it, many of us were teary-eyed. Allen was critiquing his own vocal with a hard eye, as he always did, and I’m sitting there barely able to speak.
“I’m still recovering from what it was to stand in that room and hear that in real time. I’m so touched by his vulnerability in reading that song, his choices as a piano player, and what he adds as sort of an obbligato sidebar commentary with his playing.
“In my experience with him over 10 years,” Henry said, “he was grace-filled and trusting in a grace that’s bigger and knows more than we do. I don’t know of any musician who doesn’t want to get there — not only as a musician, but as a human being.”
American Tunes is a perfectly lovely swan song by the late New Orleans songwriter and pianist Allen Toussaint. Finished weeks before his death while on tour in Madrid last November at age 77, it was produced by Joe Henry,and is a mostly instrumental effort that, like their 2009 collaboration Bright Mississippi, largely avoids the scores of hits Toussaint wrote for artists such Lee Dorsey, Irma Thomas and Ernie K-Doe. Instead, it finds one of the great late 20th-century pop writers focusing on other people' tunes, including Professor Longhair, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Bill Evans, and Earl 'F"Fatha"" Hines. Van Dyke Parks, Charles Lloyd and Rhiannon Giddens make guest appearances on the elegant and understated 14 song set, which includes two of Toussaint's own tunes in "Southern Nights," a huge hit for Glen Campbell in 1977, and the lesser-known "Delores' Boyfriend." The set closes with Toussaint - who shunned the spotlight most of his career but performed more frequently after his Crescent City home was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina - singing an affecting version of Paul Simon's weary but unbowed "American Tune."
- Dan DeLuca
by Oscar Garza and Jonathan Shifflett | The Frame June 10 2016
Allen Toussaint died last November, not long after he finished the sessions that became his and producer Joe Henry’s final collaboration, "American Tunes."
Toussaint is the composer/producer who, starting in the late 1950s, played a huge role in creating the New Orleans R&B sound. But Henry believed Toussaint had never received his proper due, so he set out to correct that when he started working with Toussaint more than 10 years ago.
Since then, Henry helped Toussaint make “The River in Reverse,” a collaboration with Elvis Costello, and “The Bright Mississippi” a collection of modern and classic jazz arrangements.
Joe Henry joined The Frame in studio recently to talk with Senior Producer Oscar Garza about working with the New Orleans icon.
How did you first start producing for Allen Toussaint?
I had created a collaborative project called "I Believe To My Soul" in 2005. The concept was that there was not really a contemporary platform for great soul artists. Everybody either got relegated to the oldies circuit or pushed into the hip-hop world. So I created this project where I invited Mavis Staples, Ann Peebles, Irma Thomas, Billy Preston and, ultimately, Allen Toussaint into a room with a shared band over four days in the old Capitol studio in Hollywood.
Originally, there was somebody else in Allen's chair. I needed someone who could be a featured artist, but also a permanent band member to connect these threads that were coming through this revolving door every day. That person dropped out about nine days before the sessions after I had spent two years assembling [the participants]. He shall remain nameless, although I still love and admire him tremendously and owe him a great debt, because the only other person who could be a featured artist in this configuration, and also a significant band member, was Allen Toussaint. But I had no relationship with him.
So how did you get to him?
My wife had years ago worked with Quint Davis who runs Jazz Fest in New Orleans. She said, "For starters, just call Quint Davis and say, 'Help. How do I find Allen Toussaint? How can you put me in touch with him?'" I called his office and a man answered the phone. I said, "Is Quint there? No? Listen I'm trying to get a hold of Allen Toussaint. Is there anybody there who can help me?" The man said, "Well, I'm his son. What's on your mind?" It was his son, Reginald, who was his manager also. So there I was. I made my desperate pitch to him and he said, "Put it in an email and I'll talk to my dad about it." He called the next day and said, "My dad says yes." I said, This is a multifaceted project and I'm asking a lot of him. Which part is he okay with?" He said, "All of it!" From that moment on we were working pretty consistently for over 10 years in so many different ways. It was life-changing for me.
Allen Toussaint produced for many artists over his long career. While he was always the gentlemen, he was very precise and exacting about getting the sound that he wanted in the studio. So what was it like for you to produce an artist who had that background as a producer?
Well, it was terrifying. I so revered him as a producer, songwriter, arranger and pianist. But because Allen had really occupied that chair as producer, he, above all, made sure that I understood that I was in that chair for a reason and that it was a real job and that I was obliged to take the wheel. So at the same time that he might have been the most intimidating man in the room, he also was the most understanding person. He saw what my responsibilities were and what my fears were — he understood all of it. I learned so much from him as his producer. It was that old thing where, if you really want to learn something, try teaching it. You try to produce somebody who knows what that means ... I know I learned a lot more than he did.
"Southern Nights" was one of Toussaint's first hit songs as a solo artist. Why did you choose to re-record it on "American Tunes?"
That's a two piano duet between Allen Toussaint and my dear friend and neighbor, Van Dyke Parks. It happened again by the aligning of stars. A lot of people don't understand the history between Allen and Van Dyke, but when Allen was first signed in 1971 to Warner Bros. Records as an artist himself, he was a very reluctant frontman. At that point, when Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin were running Warner Bros. Records, Van Dyke was a staff producer and remote A&R man. Allen would not deliver his record. He kept promising and it was not forthcoming.
At one point, as I understand it, Mo Ostin calls in Van Dyke and says, "I don't know what's going on in New Orleans, but go down there, figure out what he needs to finish this record and help him. And don't come back without it!" So Van Dyke goes to New Orleans and realizes that Allen believes himself to be a song short in his album, and a significant song short. He can't let go of it until this piece is in place. One night, Van Dyke says to him, "Listen, here's the deal, Allen: You need to imagine that you've got two weeks to live. What have you not said as a songwriter that you must?" And, as I understand it, Allen went home that night and wrote "Southern Nights."
So then, 40 years later, I'm standing in the room with both of them, and there happen to be two pianos side-by-side in the room. I thought, Well, you were inspired to write it by the man standing here so without thinking about it or talking about it, you guys should sit down at these two pianos, if nothing else, to entertain me. And the delight that both men had to sit face- to-face at these pianos — had nobody ever heard it after that, it still would have been one of the great moments of my professional life, to stand there and watch that happen. I would never, ever describe Mr. Toussaint as a giddy man, but he was giddy to sit with Van Dyke and play. It was just something I'll never forget and, as far as I know, it was the very last thing that Allen ever recorded in the studio. It seems so full circle to me now to reflect back on that reunion of those two completely anomalous characters who, nonetheless, were devoted to each other. Their admiration for each other was palpable in the room.
When was the last time that you saw or spoke with Allen Toussaint?
The last time that I communed with him was two days before his passing. It was really strange because I was driving up to Northern California to a conference and my wife was with me. I was driving and she was playing traveling secretary for me because there was a lot going on at the moment. She just said, "Hey you just got an email from A.T. Should I read it to you?" I was surprised because he would always respond to an email if I had a question for him, but he responded like a man sending a telegram who was paying by the word. He did not use email to be conversational. So for me to get an email from him was unusual if I hadn't just asked him a question. He had been resistant to recording the Billy Strayhorn piece, "Lotus Blossom," and I had urged him to stick with it because I thought it was an important piece. I thought it sat at the center of what we meant to do.
When he wrote me this email from Switzerland he just said: "Greetings from Switzerland. I just want you to know that I can't stop playing 'Lotus Blossom.' Thank you for taking me there. — A.T." There couldn't have been a more perfect sign-off for me personally than him acknowledging that I wasn't pushing him somewhere that he didn't want to go. I worried at times that I was asking him to take on music that maybe he hadn't found a way into. I never wanted it to be something he was doing for me. I wanted him to be doing it because it resonated with him. And it was very important to me that it remained meaningful to him even beyond the sessions — that he heard himself in that music somewhere and was staying engaged with it. So that was a gift for me.
Review: Allen Toussaint’s Last Album, ‘American Tunes’
By NATE CHINEN NY Times: American Tunes
JUNE 8, 2016
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.
Mr. Toussaint, who died last year at 77 after performing a concert in Madrid, was a soft-spoken yet statesmanlike eminence of New Orleans music: a pianist, singer-songwriter, producer and arranger whose influence ran deep through soul and rhythm and blues.
He also loved jazz, and made a recent album loosely in that lineage — “The Bright Mississippi” on Nonesuch in 2009 — with the producer Joe Henry. “American Tunes” is a follow-up of sorts, in that it was also produced by Mr. Henry, with choice collaborators, including the tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd and the guitarist Bill Frisell, who help serve up a courtly version of the Billy Strayhorn ballad “Lotus Blossom.” They also join Rhiannon Giddens on a pair of vocal pieces by Duke Ellington: “Come Sunday,” imploring and formal, and “Rocks in My Bed,” stomping and sly.
But even with these reference points, the album’s jazz affinities feel less meaningful than its resonances with New Orleans. Several tracks feature Mr. Toussaint alone at the piano, and they’re reminders of the regional traditions he elegantly upheld.
In particular they recall the New Orleans piano legend Professor Longhair; Mr. Toussaint had a formative and special admiration for him, like Matisse’s relationship to Cézanne. Two of the solo pieces, “Hey Little Girl” and “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” are Professor Longhair tunes; a third, “Big Chief,” was one of his calling cards, written by Earl King. The dignified calm with which Mr. Toussaint plays these rollicking tunes almost suggests a sleight-of-hand: he’s not showing you how much work it takes to make this music sound so effortless.
Smooth elegance is more his style, as he demonstrates on a pair of tracks featuring Van Dyke Parks on a second piano: “Danza, Op. 33,” by the Creole composer Louis Gottschalk, and “Southern Nights,” which Mr. Toussaint wrote in a pastoral frame of mind. As for the valedictory title track by Mr. Simon, another longtime friend and collaborator, Mr. Toussaint takes care to keep it buoyant. “Oh, but it’s all right,” he sings persuasively. “It’s all right, it’s all right.”
Allen Toussaint’s Sad, Spectacular Finale
Allen Toussaint and Joe Henry
By Steve Hochman
June 7, 2016
When Allen Toussaint died last November at age 77, suffering a series of heart attacks shortly after giving a concert in Madrid, he left a legacy as a songwriter, producer and arranger unrivaled not just in his native New Orleans, but arguably modern popular music altogether.
A full list of his credits would fill a book. Even just the highlights and hits would go on for quite a while. But just to start: Ernie K-Doe's Mother-in-Law, Lee Dorsey's Working In The Coal Mine, LaBelle's Lady Marmalade, the Pointer Sisters' Yes We Can Can, the horns on Paul McCartney & Wings 'Venus And Mars album and the Band's The Last Waltz concert and good portions of the Dr. John and The Meters catalogs — all fine examples of Toussaint's talents.
No surprise, then, that Joe Henry had an excited gleam in his eyes back in late September when, while watching a Los Angeles concert by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, he leaned over and said, "Guess what I'm doing Thursday? I'm producing Allen Toussaint's next album."
Of course, he had no idea that those sessions would be Toussaint's final studio recordings. But the resultant album, titled American Tunes and released this week by Nonesuch Records, is a perfect, if unintended epitaph. Mixing these sessions with a handful of solo recordings made at Toussaint's house in 2013, it showcases the lesser-known side of Toussaint—that of a masterful pianist and interpreter.
Solo, he turns several pieces from the repertoire of New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair into near-classical etudes. On the L.A. tracks he injects some New Orleans into pieces by such titans as Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Fats Waller and Bill Evans, with help from singer Rhiannon Giddens, guitarists Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, saxophonist Charles Lloyd, pianist/arranger Van Dyke Parks, drummer Jay Bellerose and bassist David Piltch. Closing are an instrumental of Toussaint's Southern Nights (best known as a 1977 No. 1 hit by Glen Campbell) and the lone vocal appearance by the artist, a moving, personalized reading of the song from which the album title comes, Paul Simon's "American Tune."
Henry has built a sterling production resumé—Solomon Burke, Bonnie Raitt, Loudon Wainwright III, Aaron Neville and a Harris/Crowell album, for a start—not to mention 13 fine albums of his own. But 'American Tunes' is the pinnacle of a close relationship that started with Toussaint's central role on the 2005 Henry-produced all-star Southern R&B project I Believe To My Soul. Shortly after that, Henry was invited to produce the Allen Toussaint-Elvis Costello collaboration The River in Reverse, a deeply emotional, spirited set recorded just weeks after the devastating New Orleans flood. That was followed by 2009's The Bright Mississippi, on which with Henry’s urging and support, Toussaint first focused on his piano and interpretive talents with a largely instrumental set drawn from the New Orleans jazz canon.
Getting from 'The Bright Mississippi' to 'American Tunes,' though, was a bit of a struggle--with much discussion and some reluctance on Toussaint's part. Reminded of the encounter last fall before the sessions, Henry is not at all surprised to hear of his ebullient demeanor.
"To finally be there," he says. "I'm sure I was quite giddy."
How did you see this project, going in?
After we made 'The Bright Mississippi' and [Allen] had done a lot of touring, and was digging deeper into that music and the concept of presenting himself as a piano interpreter. With that album I said, "People understand how and why you matter as a songwriter and producer, but I don't think people recognize your artistry as a pianist and interpreter." It was not just putting him on the landscape of great New Orleans artists, but more prominently place him on the arc of the most significant American musicians, hear him within the glow of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk and Fats Waller. Once we'd been there, we talked many times over the years of not wanting to recreate that record, but expand on that template.
The 2013 sessions at his house were his solo interpretations of Professor Longhair material, done almost as classical variations or etudes.
I think neither us after those two days thought it added up to an album. He wanted people to recognize Longhair as a composer of significance, not just a good-time entertainer. As this new concept started to expand, I suggested we open the fence. He was quite excited about people hearing Longhair in the company of Strayhorn and Ellington, etc.
The second half of the album features a sequence going from the middle of the 19th century with [Louis Moreau] Gottschalk's Danza to Longhair's "Hey Little Girl" to Ellington's "Come Sunday" and then Allen's own "Southern Nights." It feels like we're experiencing a whole world of modern American music through Allen's fingers and sensibilities.
I can't tell you how affirming it is that you heard it that way. That was the goal with this album, of course, as we left port. But you never know how that stuff is going to translate, or how people will perceive it.
We went through a lot of material, and there are certain things that felt undeniable to me. "Lotus Blossom," for example, I for a long time felt a kinship between the spirituality, the sublime urbanity of Allen and Billy Strayhorn. I always imagined a link between them. "Lotus Blossom" is a favorite of mine and not only did I think Allen would like it, but it's something he would relate to, something he could have written. It's sort of a Monet painting to me.
He responded immediately to me when I suggested it, but I will tell you a week before the session he tried to beg off on it. He said, "I'm not sure I can take this anywhere it isn't already." I said, "I hear you, and if you come back to me and say the same I won't mention it again. But spend a day with this. I don't think it's incidental, there's some significant connective tissue between where you are and this kind of American music." And he spend another day with it and wrote back, "You're right. I'm okay with that." He said the same thing about Gottschalk. "I don't know if I'm allowed to do this or not. I'm not allowed to funkify Gottschalk." I said, "Of course you are! No artist thinks that their art is unapproachable." I said to him, "You don't want to think that your art is unapproachable, that because where you parked it, it is un-engageable."
Van Dyke Parks not only arranged Danza, but duets with Allen.
I was invited to sing at the pair of "farewell" live performance concerts Van Dyke did at [the L.A. theatre] Largo. I was standing in the wings waiting to sing and Van Dyke goes out with a small orchestra and performs that piece. He's a long-time friend and mentor, and long-time friend of Allen and as soon as he came off stage I grabbed his overalls and said, "I need that."
I said to Allen that it would be very stripped-down. Van Dyke said, "I have a stripped-down arrangement — one piano, one harp, one cello." I said that's exactly what we need. Serendipitously, there happened to be two pianos side by side in the studio when we recorded that at United Sound. Van Dyke came in to watch and as soon as he walked in, Allen bolted over to me and said, "You know there are two pianos there. How would you feel about Van Dyke and me doing it together?" I would rarely use giddy to describe his demeanor. But he was giddy. He knew where the song needed to go in the present tense.
Producing one of the iconic producers of American music had to have been daunting. How did you approach that?
This is a very particular relationship. I was conscious of it before he passed. Allen and I worked regularly over a full decade and my wide said many times over the years, "You will never have another relationship like that." He is such an anomalous human being and was so generous and trusting of me in ways I understand, and some I don't. But he gave me so much latitude as a producer, I believe, because he was one so significantly himself that he knew it was a job, and need to be somebody's job. And whoever had that chair was accorded a certain amount of respect and leeway because he demanded it when he sat in that chair.
Just after Katrina happened, he and I had dinner in New York and it was one of the few times he and I sat together without others in the circle. And I had such an amazing, spontaneous conversation with him about his life as a producer in the '50s in New Orleans, about our approaches, and it was so inspiring to listen to someone who had been at it so long and so well-known, to listen to his message.
He said that, "Back in the heyday I wrote parts for everybody — drummer, bass player, I wrote the charts. When they walked through that door, I handed it to them, and a good session was when they played it that way." He said to me, "You don't do it that way." I said, "There's a good reason. I can't. I certainly can't write for a drummer. I have my imagination of what it will sound like, but I want when they come in to hear what they will offer that we don’t already know." He said, "You invite people to the table and wait for magic to happen. And somehow it does."
I bring that up not to congratulate myself, but he said, "I did it my way for so long and right now I want to go where you go, to be part of that." I was stunned. He was in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and he was thinking, "I want to go somewhere else, be something more, something new." That he could have that heart and still be open to that point of view.
You did invite other musicians for this.
The rhythm throughout was Jay Bellerose and David Piltch, who were on 'Bright Mississippi'. They are my dear brothers and worked a lot with AT on my watch. The trio things with them are the heart and soul of this record. And Bill Frisell on electric guitar, whenever you hear that, Charles Lloyd on tenor. And Greg Leisz plays Weissenborn [acoustic slide guitar] on "Come Sunday" and "Rocks In My Bed." Greg is like Jay and David, one of my closest allies going on more than 15 years, 20 years. At one point I just wanted him to be in the room, didn't even know for what songs or what he would play. Sometimes I feel I'm more casting now for personality and inspiration. And his relationship with Frisell and Jay in particular, you're tapping into that synergy. I also liked the earthy quality the Weissenborn brings to the Ellington pieces. Great to hear those taken out of the very formal setting and presented in a humble and earthy fashion, and I love that tonality.
What was the thinking behind having Rhiannon Giddens, whom you'd produced with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, come in for two songs?
As Allen and I were honing in on repertoire, we talked about the ways in which the new recording should be in kinship with 'The Bright Mississippi'— it should feel like a natural progression and a companion piece, yet have its own distinct identity. And as such we wanted to include a guest vocalist, whereas the guests on the last one were all instrumentalists.
Being a dear friend as well as a frequent collaborator, Rhiannon came quickly to my mind. I knew that she would resonate deeply with Allen, since, like him, her musicality can be both earthy and refined. And the notion of her involvement gave me the courage to suggest Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's "Come Sunday" from the Brown, Black and Beige suite—a longtime favorite of mine, but not a shoe everyone would willingly try on for size, given that Mahalia Jackson had so powerfully rendered it with Duke in 1958.
Rhiannon flew in from Texas on her only day off from a tour in 10 days. We knew we only had her for some three hours before she needed to fly out again, and this was the first recording day of the ensemble sessions. Bill Frisell and Charles Lloyd were both on hand, as was Greg Leisz. I think we only ran two full takes of the song and I was immediately moved by both. I recall that Rhiannon was concerned that perhaps her approach was too classical in tone, but Allen begged to differ. It was exactly her refinement against the smeared, bluesy reading from the band that made it work for him. And he said to Rhiannon — and I’m quoting from memory the best I can — “We can’t all be standing in the alley. There is real sacred elegance to this piece, and that’s what I’m hearing from you.”
Paul Simon's "American Tune" was something Allen started doing regularly not long after the flood, and it had the right tone for a city and its people struggling to get life back on track, struggling to move forward. Simon's dream of American just seemed to fit. Here it serves as epilogue to the journey through American music, and perhaps to his whole career.
Amazing retroactively how our experience throws a light on something, how different it sounds to me and sounds to me instantly. His reading of "American Tune" was a last-minute inclusion. It occurred to me and [Nonesuch Records co-president] David Bither that we have to hear his voice somewhere. We needed to hear him. And once he was gone, hearing him and in particular in that context carries a weight that no one imagined we were having at the moment.
I talked to Elvis about it, and the two of them began doing the song together when touring 'The River In Reverse.' Elvis said, "I'm so grateful, when we were doing it I sang the lion's share of the song." But because I knew that he had done it, and because it's such a heavy piece of writing and the impulse of this record to touch on such a wide array of American music forms and understand there's a through line, something like that song connects to everything we hear.
And now the album is marked by the loss.
It's devastating. To come this far — I never had to finish a record without the artist standing next to me. Fortunately, everything was recorded. I wouldn't have dreamed of recording anything without him. But to be mixing it… We were scheduled to begin mixing the record, he died on a Sunday in Madrid. I got word about 6 a.m. Monday morning. My wife, Melanie, and I were up in Sonoma at a friend's little cabin in the woods. We were due to drive home and laying asleep in the pouring rain and I got two texts in 15 seconds, the phone buzzed. As a parent, that's never a good sign, rapid texts at 6 in the morning. I fumbled for my glasses, couldn't find them, but could see there on the screen that there were two texts, one from his daughter and one from the president of Nonesuch, and even without my glasses I could see two words in each — "Allen" and "dead." Melanie said, "Is everything okay?" And I couldn't even say it out loud. I didn't want to say it, it made it real.
I had an email from him 36 hours before that, which was unique. He rarely replied to emails, but when he did it was like sending a telegram paid by the word. I was driving up north for the weekend and Melanie was playing secretary and said, "Hey, you got an email from AT." That never happened. She read it and he said, "I just landed in Switzerland and wanted to tell you I can't stop playing 'Lotus Blossom.' Thank you for taking me there." And two days later he was gone.
Subject: The Gambit (New Orleans): American Tunes
Parting gift: Allen Toussaint’s final album, American Tunes
Producer Joe Henry on working with the legendary songwriter
By John Wirt
American Tunes is Allen Toussaint's beautiful parting gift. Like its Grammy Award-nominated predecessor, 2009's The Bright Mississippi, American Tunes casts the songwriter, producer and pianist in a role he assumed late in life: the artist-pianist interpreting the music of fellow American masters. His touch is unmistakable.
Joe Henry, the man behind The Bright Mississippi and American Tunes (out June 10), made a name for himself as a producer of legacy artists. Bonnie Raitt, Aaron Neville, Irma Thomas, Mavis Staples, Emmylou Harris, Solomon Burke, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Mose Allison are in that large number.
As important as the above artists are to Henry, Toussaint occupies a special place.
"I've never had another relationship in my life like the one I enjoyed with Allen," Henry says. "And I won't ever again."
Henry and Toussaint's decade of collaboration began with 2005's I Believe to My Soul, a collection of new recordings by classic soul and rhythm-and-blues artists Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Mavis Staples, Ann Peebles and Billy Preston. Toussaint's willingness to travel to Los Angeles to participate in the Soul sessions surprised Henry.
"Allen told me he never imagined leaving New Orleans again," Henry says. "He played (the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival) and a couple of things here and there. He considered himself to be retired."
During a break in the I Believe to My Soul sessions, Henry overheard Toussaint playing solo piano.
"He was in the room alone," Henry recalled. "He started playing Fats Waller. I said, 'Hey. Have you ever thought of making a record like that?' He kept playing and sort of smiled and said, 'Oh, no, never.' He said it in such a way that I was sure he had thought of it.
Hurricane Katrina preceded the release of I Believe to My Soul by two months.
"I was with Allen in New York, doing press for the album," Henry recalls. "Allen, the seminal figurehead of New Orleans music, was exiled after his home was destroyed. He became the center of a lot of attention."
After the levee failures and floods in 2005, Toussaint agreed to record an album with Elvis Costello. Knowing Henry had plans to make a Toussaint solo album, the British star, invited Henry to produce the Costello-Toussaint collaboration that resulted in The River in Reverse.
Henry wouldn't realize his dream of producing a Toussaint solo album until The Bright Mississippi. When the project was finally in production, Toussaint deferred to Henry as to what he should record. Remembering Toussaint's piano soloing during the I Believe to My Soul sessions, Henry opted to present Toussaint playing music he didn't write. The Bright Mississippi features Toussaint's interpretations of classics by Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Django Reinhardt, Jelly Roll Morton, Joe "King" Oliver and Sidney Bechet.
"It was a successful project by everybody's estimation and an incredibly important for me," Henry says. "Then I spent the next six years chasing Allen to make the follow-up."
The elegant, largely instrumental American Tunes follows The Bright Mississippi template. There's music by Waller, Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Paul Simon, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Bill Evans, Earl King, Professor Longhair and Louis Moreau Gottschalk. There also are a few Toussaint compositions: the Professor Longhair-inspired "Delores' Boyfriend" and a new version of "Southern Nights." Guests Rhiannon Giddens and Van Dyke Parks join Toussaint, as do session players including saxophonist Charles Lloyd and Henry's regular rhythm section, drummer Jay Bellerose and bassist David Piltch.
American Tunes almost didn't happen. After Toussaint and Henry recorded solo piano pieces in New Orleans in 2013, sessions didn't resume until October 2015. It was completed during four intense days in Los Angeles. Toussaint died a few weeks later, on Nov. 10, following a concert in Madrid.
Two weeks before the 2015 sessions, Toussaint had asked Henry to postpone them.
"He'd done that a few times over the years," Henry says. "I said, 'No, Allen. I can't postpone this again. People have changed their schedules to accommodate us. If we're ever going to do this, now's the time. But if what you're really telling me is you don't want to do this, just say so. I love you till the end of time. I'm so proud of the work we've done together to date.' Allen came back immediately and said, 'You're right. I want to honor the schedule.'
"When Allen left the studio on the last day of recording, he was buoyant," Henry says. "He was so proud of the work. He made sure that I understood that. He said, 'I'm elated about what's happened.'"
Henry learned of Toussaint's death via a pair of early morning text messages. One from Toussaint's daughter, Alison Toussaint-LeBeaux, the other from the president of Nonesuch Records, David Bither.
"I couldn't take it in," Henry says. "I've had many moments since when it just doesn't compute that he's not among us. On the other hand, he was such a unique and mystical character. I always regarded him as being partially of this Earth. He was always dwelling in the next."
Finishing Allen Toussaint's final album: 'It couldn't only be just beautiful'
By Chelsea Brasted, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
When Joe Henry read the many tributes and prose about Allen Toussaint following the New Orleans musician's death in November, he noticed the writers calling the 2006 project he produced with Toussaint and Elvis Costello a "swan song."
But Henry knew one thing those writers didn't: "The River in Reverse" was no final project. Toussaint had been working for years on another, nearly complete album. And it was sitting in Henry's files.
"I have never been in a position to need to finish a record with the artist at my side or, I should say, me at their side, because the artist is trump," Henry said. "Fortunately, I had everything. I had any notes from him I needed, so I was very confident I was representing what he wanted to be represented."
Toussaint's fans will finally hear the music he and Henry had been finishing. The new album, "American Tunes," is out Friday (June 10) from Nonesuch Records.
When Toussaint died Nov. 10, 2015, while on tour in Madrid, Henry lost a friend, mentor and musical partner. He could also never hear the music he and Toussaint had recorded the same way.
"What it sounded like to me when I knew I could ask him about it was quite different to me than how it sounded as his final statement. The light of his passing threw a completely different and important shadow on what we had just done," said Henry, who produced the album, "and I don't think there's anything around it. You're going to hear it differently. There's a weight and a gravitas that is undeniable."
Chief among the concerns Henry had was sequencing the album. He already knew that he was listening to the music in a different way than he had before, and so ordering the tracks on "American Tunes" became more complicated as he shaped the experience of what listeners would hear from piece to piece. Henry, however, already had rough mixes of what Toussaint aimed for in the project that endeavored to examine American compositions. A daunting task already, to be sure, but the path forward was laid before Henry.
"American Tunes" was recorded in two different sessions over several years— one solo piano at home in New Orleans and one with a rhythm section and other guest artists — and the songs encompass original pieces as well as ones by Professor Longhair, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans and Fats Waller.
"There's a real overview of the total landscape of American music. There's gospel and jazz and blues and folk music and parlor music all referenced," Henry said. "I most wanted to keep in mind ... that anybody approaching this music hear Allen."
Henry and Toussaint had worked together many times, and not just on the 2006 album. They'd collaborated many times on various projects for the last decade of Toussaint's life, and the musician Henry met in the studio was one who could be both mentor and a tutor.
"He was as vigilant and focused and tenacious as I'd ever known him to be," Henry said. "He played so beautifully. He could make anything sound beautiful going by, but it couldn't only be just beautiful. ... He wanted to make sure it mattered that he was doing something with it."
Still, between the two sessions, there were many pieces left on the cutting room floor, and that, too, was important. Simply because Henry knew the music existed did not give him leave to release it.
"I couldn't relax my guard, as easy as it would have been, to just put everything we recorded on the record because it was everything we had. ... He and I talked about that a lot," Henry said. "You still want to make sure it reads like a singular movie. that you're only using what is very much in a complete sentence."
That doesn't mean there won't be a second life for those other pieces of music, especially, Henry said, some particularly poignant solo piano pieces.
"I don't think anything is disposable," Henry said. "If those songs had not existed as complete recordings, if he'd had any qualm about them, I wouldn't be holding a rough mix of them to even evaluate. He wouldn't let me leave the house with them."
Subject: L.A. Times review: American Tunes
Your essential summer music guide
Missed the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival? Bummed you didn’t score tickets to Adele’s upcoming six-night stay at Staples Center or Radiohead’s two-night jaunt at the Shrine Auditorium? Well, there’s plenty of music still to be had this summer, both on record and in person.
What follows are some of the top picks from The Times’ music staff.
The swan song recording by the veteran New Orleans songwriter, producer, arranger, pianist and singer, who died last fall at age 77 while on tour in Spain, is a rich pianistic tour de force of American music. Toussaint and producer Joe Henry, with assists from singer Rhiannon Giddens and Renaissance man Van Dyke Parks, put his signature on songs by Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Professor Longhair and Paul Simon’s elegant title track. It’s a gorgeous, grace-filled journey through the history of American popular music by one of its most artful proponents. (Randy Lewis)
First Listen: Allen Toussaint, 'American Tunes'
June 2, 20167:00 AM ET
In the last decade or so of his life, the record producer, composer, songwriter and arranger Allen Toussaint started playing a lot more live shows. The root cause was sad — a consequence of relocating from his native New Orleans after hurricane-related flooding — but the performances were everyday magic. Often it would be just him at the piano as he played a broad selection of his hits, his non-hits, songs he had a hand in, songs he just liked. He would sing without affectation, tell stories as one would at the dinner table, and deviate frequently. It was obvious that he was a master musician, able to play Romantic classical masterpieces and Professor Longhair rhumba riffs in the same breath. He was also hosting you at his salon, with a genuine gentlemanly manner and a wink of vast experience.
American Tunes, released posthumously following his death last November, isn't designed to capture or simulate a live concert experience. But it does present a side of Toussaint he seemed to emphasize at those shows — an almost retrospective, autumnal focus on the ideas which made him and his music. This is a program of largely all-time-classic songs from jazz and pop history, emphasizing his hometown and personal hero Professor Longhair. Ellingtonia staples "Come Sunday" and "Lotus Blossom" are in the mix with "Big Chief" and "Mardi Gras In New Orleans"; equally on the level are tunes by fellow pianist-composer-virtuosi Fats Waller, Bill Evans, Earl Hines and even New Orleans' own Louis Moreau Gottschalk. It's hard not to read a subtext here: that all these songs belonged in the canon which gave rise to Toussaint and his city, and thus to the bigger picture of important American tunes.
This project was recorded with producer Joe Henry in two parts: one a solo session and the other with a rhythm section (bassist David Piltch and drummer Jay Bellerose) joined by special guests with their own slanted Americana: Bill Frisell, Charles Lloyd, Greg Leisz, Rhiannon Giddens, Van Dyke Parks. The delivery is generally elegant, as expected, with little mess around the edges, and taken alone the acoustic politeness could grow frustrating from a central architect of R&B and funk. (Toussaint's digressive, legato reading of "Big Chief" stands out.) But dapper and refined were his personal aesthetic guidelines in life as in music; this is his tribute, after all.
Toward the end, Toussaint selects "Southern Nights," a signature song and also a 1977 hit for country singer Glen Campbell. It's one of the few songs Toussaint ever wrote specifically for himself to perform (apparently inspired by fellow behind-the-scenester Van Dyke Parks' directive to "consider that you were going to die in two weeks"), and he initially saw little commercial potential for the languid pentatonic melody. He would play it toward the end of concerts, taking a long time to tell the story behind it, and the imagery of his unhurried porch-sits felt transportive. But here, it's just a florid instrumental, and only the penultimate song Toussaint chose. The record actually ends on a spare arrangement of Paul Simon's "American Tune," a poetic sketch of world-weariness and hoping against hope. Is that another cheeky wink? The bridge, after all, does include these lines:
And I dreamed I was dying
And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Subject: KPCC: American Tunes review
Artist: Allen Toussaint
Album: "American Tunes"
Songs: "Big Chief," "American Tune"
The title, taken from the Paul Simon song that closes this album, tells the story: This is American music, a river running from the pre-Joplin cakewalks of Louis Moreau Gottschalk to Fats Waller to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn to Bill Evans to Professor Longhair — all given remarkable new life through the musical mind and masterful fingers of New Orleans giant Allen Toussaint. As such, it makes for a perfect, if sadly premature epitaph for Toussaint, who died in November at 77 of a heart attack following a concert in Madrid, just weeks after completing these recordings.
Now, pianist and interpreter might be the last of his talents that get mentioned, understandably given his towering stature as a songwriter, producer and arranger. We could spend hours, days just listing the key artists and songs he’s been behind in one or more of those capacities, going back to the 1950s: Ernie K-Doe’s "Mother in Law," Lee Dorsey’s "Working in a Coal Mine" and "Ride Your Pony," LaBelle’s "Lady Marmalade," the Pointer Sisters’ "Yes We Can Can," Herb Alpert's "Whipped Cream," Irma Thomas’ "It’s Raining," the horn charts for the Band’s "Last Waltz" concert, arrangements on Paul McCartney’s "Venus and Mars" album, many works by New Orleans mainstays Dr. John and the Meters, and so on and so on. He was a key force not just in shaping his city’s sound, but swathes of American popular music through several eras.
So it may seem odd to some that what turned out to be his last recordings features just one of his own songs, an instrumental of "Southern Nights," best known in the 1977 No. 1 hit version by Glen Campbell. But it at once shows his relationship to these great legacies of modern music, and properly, profoundly places him in that company.
This is a fine companion to 2009’s "The Bright Mississippi," both albums largely instrumental sets produced by Joe Henry, who also oversaw the Toussaint-Elvis Costello collaboration "The River In Reverse," recorded in New Orleans just weeks after the 2005 flood. As on "Bright Mississippi," Henry brought in drummer Jay Bellerose and bassist David Piltch for restrained, chamber-jazz complement, and this time also enlisted Rhiannon Giddens to sing on two Ellington songs ("Come Sunday" and "Rocks in My Bed"), as well as electric guitarist Bill Frisell, acoustic slide player Greg Leisz and sax icon Charles Lloyd on a few tracks. And Van Dyke Parks not only provided the sharp arrangement for Gottschalk’s 1857 Latin-tinged keystone "Danza," he turns it into a two-piano duet with Toussaint
But it’s Toussaint’s deceptively graceful approach that elevates every piece. As pointed out in the astute liner notes by Tom Piazza, a New Orleans music critic, novelist and one of the writers on the HBO just-after-the-flood drama "Treme," on one hand Toussaint brings a New Orleans tinge, with its subtle funk and delightful flourishes, to such jazz classics as Strayhorn’s "Lotus Blossom" and Evans’ "Waltz for Debbie" (somewhat perversely played in 4/4 rather than waltz-time), while transforming such New Orleans standards as Prof. Longhair’s "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" and Earl King’s "Big Chief" (best known from Longhair’s repertoire) into elegant etudes and concisely imaginative sonatas.
The sequence unfolds like a vibrant novel or film. And at the end, Simon’s "American Tune" is epilogue. Here we get not just Toussaint’s piano, but finally his voice, too, conversational and eloquent with Simon’s portrayal of the complex cultural mix of our nation that brought about the music we’ve just heard, born of struggle and perseverance, of fears of dying and dreams of flying, of transitions and uncertainties, of destinations and destinies unknown. Toussaint brought it into his repertoire in the first few years after the flood, one of several New Orleans musicians who latched onto it as a song that expressed what they, and their city were experiencing as they fought to rebound and rebuild. Here, though, as many in New Orleans and beyond still mourn his loss, hearing him sing this caps this final album with a perfect measure of both celebration of a life of music and sadness at its ending. His life was a truly American tune. An American symphony.
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