On 4th of July, America’s birthday, we review American Tunes... the last, and posthumously released, album by one of the USA’s most influential, diverse, and loved musicians, composers, and musical luminaries, the late.
This album finds Toussaint many times alone at his piano. When he is accompanied it is often sparse but with impeccable precision. As his persona requires, all the accompanists are top notch musicians in their own right.
A man well known for his own compositions, American Tunes instead features Toussaint’s unique interpretations of other people’s American music. Many are well known classics from his hometown, New Orleans.
The album starts off with Delores’ Boyfriend with Toussaint alone at the piano doing what I call a “sportin’ parlor ragtime blues.” It sounds and smells like pure New Orleans, and is the first of only 2 cuts on the album written by Toussaint himself.
The second track, Viper’s Drag, is an old Fats Waller tune also in the ragtime vein. Accompanied only by drummer Jay Bellerose and upright bassist David Piltch, Allen seems to just be having fun with this one.
Confessin’ (That I Love You), a jazz standard from the 1930s comes next. This tune was popularized by Louis Armstrong. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone so comfortable in front of a keyboard as Allen is on this number. There’s a mighty tasty little bass solo by David Piltch in this one too!
Next is a familiar song by another New Orleans legend, Professor Longhair’s Mardi Gras in New Orleans.Showcasing Toussaint again alone at the piano this tune is done at a much slower tempo than usual. As such, it yields an elegant version of this party tune.
This is followed by Lotus Blossom, a song written by Duke Ellington’s keyboardist, Billy Strayhan. Naturally it was popularized by the Ellington Orchestra back in the 1950s. Again at ease with an old jazz standard, the notes just flow like water down a lazy stream.
Another jazz standard, this one from the 1960s, Waltz For Debby is the next up. A tune by Bill Evans originally recorded in 1961 is very tastefully done by just the trio.
But we’re back solidly in the Crescent City with a solo rendition of Earl King’s Big Chief which was popularized by Professor Longhair.
Then comes my favorite tune on the album, and they bring out extra instrumentation for this one. Duke Ellington’s Rocks In My Bed! Guitar part by Bill Frisel lincluding a wonderful slide solo is complemented by absolutely magnificent vocals by Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops).
Danza, Op. 33 (Louis Moreau Gottschalk) showcases the diversity of Toussaint’s virtuosity. A classical number that combines polka music with Caribbean rhythms it just seems a perfect fit for displaying the broad range of styles that influenced Toussaint’s songwriting.
Another Professor Longhair tune, Hey Little Girl, injects some more fun into the session as only the good Professor could do. It is followed by the Earl “Fatha” Hines theme song, Rosetta. Few people have been more integral to the development of jazz music than Earl Hines and this rendition gives him his due.
A second Ellington song, Come Sunday again features Rhiannon Giddens on vocals. (Before I read the liner notes I thought it was Catherine Russell).
The other Toussaint original included here is an instrumental version of Southern Nights made famous by Glen Campbell. The album concludes aptly with American Tune by Paul Simon with Toussaint on vocals.
They say after Hurricane Katrina that, perhaps out of necessity, Allen Toussaint took to performing live and touring much more. It is also said that his performances were often totally unscripted. He would sit down at the piano and play whatever was in his head or his heart that day. Since he could play damn near anything, these shows were quite a treat! And so it is that this album seems to be a collection of Allen Toussaint’s favorite songs. American Tunes.
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