February 29, 2012
For most of his career—from ca. 1960 through 2004—Allen Toussaint, the great New Orleans songwriter, producer, pianist and singer, remained thoroughly ensconced behind the scenes in the recording studio, writing and producing hits for other artists. During the 1970s, he made occasional albums under his own name, but even then made no attempt to establish himself as a performer. Normally he performed in public only two or three times a year, almost always in New Orleans. As a longtime student of his work, I counted myself very lucky to have seen him live as often as I have, including two atypical week-long stands at Yoshi’s jazz club in Oakland during the 1990s and various memorable appearances in the Crescent City. Every performance I saw was different, and every one amazing. But his live appearances remained extremely rare.
All this changed abruptly in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. Toussaint’s home was severely damaged; he relocated for a time to New York, and there found himself besieged with offers to perform, first on nationally televised hurricane-relief benefit shows, then in other situations. Adapting to his new circumstances, Toussaint began to tour, and now performs regularly, logging more gigs in an average year than he had previously played in a decade.
Out of all the many shows I’ve seen him do, none was more thrilling and satisfying than an appearance on February 29, when he returned at last to Yoshi’s in Oakland. He did one long show, full of lovely, surprising, subtle vocal turns and sparkling, immaculate piano work. He delivered 20 songs in two hours, backed by a super-solid rhythm section—his longtime New Orleans cohorts Roland Guerin on bass and Herman LeBeaux (Toussaint’s son-in-law) on drums.
Guerin in particular was a revelation. He was playing a 6-string bass, and took several of solos, moving up onto the higher-pitched strings, basically into a medium-high lead guitar register. Lots of bass solos unfortunately tend to be show-offy and over-the-top, as the bass player seizes his one chance in the set to show off his hot chops and acrobatic speed, kind of like throwing in a Buddy Rich-style drum solo “because you can.” Guerin’s solos were a very pleasant relief from this pattern. They were always spare, melodic, and soulful, very musical, a real pleasure to hear. Also, in a number of his solos, after Guerin had played for a while, Toussaint would feather in behind him on the piano, and the “solo” would turn into an improvised, interweaving, duo break, a real musical conversation. I don’t remember seeing this interactive element in any previous Toussaint show. It was wonderful.
The show began with several instrumentals. Toussaint led off, as he often does, with “Traffic,” the lively, bluesy-funky tune which opens his relatively obscure, independently issued 2004 “Jazzity Project” album, Going Places. This song always works great, with lovely parallel-6ths melody lines introduced later in the piece.
Then it was on to “The Bright Mississippi,” the title cut from his much better-known 2009 Grammy winner. The tune, as Toussaint pointed out, is really the classic “Sweet Georgia Brown”—although as he added demurely, “If Thelonious Monk says it’s ‘The Bright Mississippi’ . . .” (shrug). He gave a big shout-out here to Joe Henry, “a wonderful producer,” he said, expressing gratitude that Henry, instead of expecting another funky Nawlins album from him, had led him into doing all this wonderful older jazz material. “Singin’ the Blues,” another number from the same album, followed. It was great to hear these tunes without the horns and guitars, with Toussaint’s piano taking all the leads.
Moving into vocal numbers, he delivered a spellbinding take of “Freedom For the Stallion,” his slow, hymn-like meditation on the history of black folks in America. Musically gorgeous, emotionally powerful.
Then there was a sequence of cooking, funky New Orleans gems, beginning with “Get Out My Life Woman.” Toussaint mentioned that this is his most covered song, singling out Bay Area boys the Grateful Dead for their version, and said apologetically that he “wrote it one day, and felt completely different the next day.” (He meant about the woman in question!) But of course, he played it with maximum soul and spirit, with the signature piano licks and with a loose, open feel. Next the extremely funky “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?,” a hip, provocative sketch of ghetto life, also originally written for Lee Dorsey (and reprised by Toussaint himself on his recent album with Elvis Costello). And an upbeat ride through the driving, minor-key “Happiness” from 1978’s Motion.
“It’s Raining.” What a surprise! I’ve heard Toussaint play this classic ballad behind Irma Thomas numerous times, but have never heard him sing it before. Throughout the night, his singing on these gentle numbers was heart-stoppingly beautiful, with delicate slides up into notes that were right on the border of falsetto vs. lower-register—gorgeous vocal tones, subtle, intimate, with emotionally nuanced improvising in every line. I’ve done this song a few times in my own solo shows, and try to bring that same sort of delicate intimacy to it. I wish I had a recording of this performance by the master!
Next, the familiar but wonderful medley of his 1960s hits made famous by New Orleans singers: “A Certain Girl” (the knowledgeable audience sang back “what’s her name?” setting up Toussaint’s answer “can’t tell you!”) / “Mother-in-Law” / “Fortune Teller” / “Workin’ In A Coal Mine” / then back to “A Certain Girl.” He always does this medley in the show, but this time he stretched it out: he’d start into one of the songs, then talk, over the groove, about the singer, or tell some amusing story about the tune, then continue. He called Ernie K-Doe “a very cocky” artist, who was telling them all he was a star long before the world knew it, and added “I like cocky people very much.” He also told, as he often does, about Benny Spellman insisting that it was his bass vocal that had really made “Mother-In-Law” a hit, and how this led to Toussaint writing “Lipstick Traces” for Spellman with the similar bass phrase on “Don’t leave me no more.” And he gave a shout-out to the Stones for their version of “Fortune Teller,” saying he loves seeing them now, still out there playing great.
Next, a performance of “Soul Sister” off Life, Love and Faith. It was just great—relaxed, soulful, better than the record. Guerin sang beautiful harmony on the line “You know you’re lookin’ good, you know you’re lookin’ good.” His only vocal turn of the night! Why doesn’t he sing on more of the tunes? Amusingly, Toussaint said that this song is always requested by white people! (Stay tuned for another good-natured racial quip later.)
Now, a total surprise. Without identifying the songwriter, Toussaint said the next song was one by a songwriter he loves who had recently been “under the weather,” so he, Elvis Costello, and other friends had done a tribute album to cheer the guy up; and, he added, the writer is now doing much better. He then played an absolutely gorgeous, flowing ballad about watching a ship leave the harbor with a loved one on board. At the end of the song, he identified the composer as Jesse Winchester. I didn’t remember the song at first, but I jotted down enough of the lyric to trace it later on the web, and it is “I Wave Bye Bye” off an excellent, out-of-print Winchester disc which I in fact own, 1999’s Gentleman of Leisure. Winchester, like Toussaint, can sing amazing, beautiful stuff in his upper register, and this performance was a real stunner. Hopefully this will be on the tribute album, due out later this year.
Toussaint then launched into another medley of sorts, which he’s started doing in the show just in the last few years: a series of very quick instrumental impressions of music that has influenced him over the years, from classical to jazz to pop to Professor Longhair. The rhythm section mostly lays out on this—they just have no idea where Allen will go next, it’s different every time. Some of the song snatches only last five or ten seconds, just a phrase, and then he’s on to the next one. I couldn’t notate (or recognize) all the tunes, but I wrote down a few—“Fly Me To the Moon,” “Heart And Soul” (played like kids learn it), “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” the “Minute Waltz,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” the “Trolley Song” (clang clang clang went…), “The 3 Bells” (remember the Browns, anyone?), and many more! In between all these he kept returning periodically to substantial bits of “Tipitina.” At one point, in an amazing little tour de force, he started playing the melody to “Tea For Two” in the left hand, and then, seemingly effortlessly, over that, played a flawless fast “Nola” in the right hand, perfectly synched and harmonizing with the other tune!
At the end of all this, a full-on Longhair medley of “Tipitina” and “Big Chief.” Toussaint segued briefly into the “other” harmony he plays for “Big Chief,” the flowing major-7ths version of the lick, but did not sing (though he still does in some shows) his tribute verses about Fess (“thank you Lord for giving me one such as he”), which we first heard him perform at Fess’s funeral in Stevenson Palfi’s great documentary, Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together. He also briefly dipped into his minor-key version of “Tipitina” (available on the compilation album Our New Orleans), then brought the song back to its original form.
Next, a very fully-realized, full-length and very soulful cover of “The City of New Orleans,” with a strong complex piano groove, not just the basic folk/ country two-beat rhythm. At the very end of the song, after the third chorus, Toussaint then kept it going for another chorus and told the audience to sing. As the whole room enthusiastically joined in, he told the band “All white folks know this song!” Very cute. At the end, crediting songwriter Steve Goodman, he said that the song very much applies to the experience of New Orleans people. I think it was at this point that he also referred to New Orleans as the place he was born, and where he will die – “but not any time soon!” (He made various other entertaining remarks about New Orleans throughout the show, including one priceless moment when, talking about New Orleans speech, he did a brief, spot-on imitation of Dr. John’s growling patois, using words like “edumacated.”)
At this point, a hip audience member called out “From A Whisper To A Scream!” Toussaint went right into it. I absolutely love this song – the haunting, dark, moody opening number from 1970’s Toussaint – and don’t think I’d ever seen him play it before. I suspect he may not have performed it in a long time. But it was all right there at his fingertips. I saw Guerin watching him closely, listening for the changes, but he had no trouble keeping up. So great to hear this.
Winding up the show: the slow version of “Southern Nights,” with the extended extra passage he’s been including in the song frequently, these last few years: the wonderful long spoken reminiscence of visiting his country Creole relatives when he was a boy – the experience which he says inspired the song. He tells the story over the song’s rippling, flowing piano chords, speaking almost as if he was spontaneously drifting into a trance of memory, and it’s never the same twice: he adds new details every time he tells it, this time doing a lot of Cajun/ Creole dialect, talking about the outhouses, much more. Hearing it is like going into a dream with him, and as far as I’m concerned he could go on all night once we are all in the trance together. (A version of this arrangement is included in an Austin City Limits show which still occasionally airs on PBS.) Finally he ended it, shifted into the uptempo treatment of “Southern Nights,” and left the stage with the band still playing the groove.
But he did come back for one encore, “Long Long Journey,” the wry Leonard Feather-penned blues number which is his only vocal on The Bright Mississippi. He did it great, of course, stretched it out. Then one more reprise of the “Southern Nights” theme and the show was over.
Age 74 and better than ever! What a treat, what an inspiration, what an experience.
—Johnny Harper (San Leandro, California)