The Bright Mississippi

Aug 26, 2009 at 12:00 am

At 71, Allen Toussaint need merely call up the R&B of his youth to be hailed for his contributions to "roots" music. After all, he's the man behind such classics as "Working in a Coal Mine" and "Ride Your Pony," and an inheritor of the boogie-ish New Orleans piano tradition of the late Professor Longhair — not to mention a forward-looking producer who's shared his studio mojo with artists from LaBelle to Paul McCartney. But on this disc, he looks way back to his roots' roots, tunes that must have been the backdrop to his youth, but that he never bothered to learn or play himself. Maybe it's the act of discovery that's the fizz here. 

With Joe Henry producing, Toussaint has corralled an all-star jazz cast, including tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, clarinetist Don Byron, guitarist Marc Ribot and fellow New Orleanian (though younger by a couple generations) Nicholas Payton on trumpet. The tunes reach back to the traditional "St. James Infirmary" and "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" and to one of the first masterpieces of the Louis Armstrong canon, Joe Oliver and Clarence Williams' "West End Blues." "Winin' Boy Blues" is a duet between Toussaint and fellow pianist Brad Mehldau with the ghost of composer Jelly Roll Morton looming in the background.
But Toussaint links those tunes to less-distant jazz pasts. A version of Thelonious Monk's "Bright Mississippi" struts to a New Orleans parade beat (a conceit that Ellis Marsalis also pulled off throughout 2008's highly recommended An Open Letter to Thelonious). Likewise, Toussaint brings his talents to bear on Ellington's "Solitude," Ellington and Strayhorn's "Day Dream" and (a lesser-known surprise here) Leonard Feather's "Long, Long Journey."

W. Kim Heron is the editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].