Allen Toussaint: The Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch/Warners)

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Allen Toussaint: West End Blues
Allen Toussaint: The Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch/Warners)

This godfather and keeper-of-the-keys in New Orleans music has popped up quite a lot recently in a more mainstream popular culture context by appearing on albums with James Hunter and Elvis Costello (The River in Reverse), and would be well known to Elsewhere readers.

For this album however (produced by the remarkable Joe Henry) the pianist/arranger goes right back to the early jazz era of The Big Easy and in the company of superb players such as trumpeter Nicholas Payton, guitarist Marc Ribot and others (pianist Brad Mehldau and tenor player Joshua Redman guest on a track each) he conjures up the pre-swing grooves, sleepytime down South mood of the city in those now distant days.

The jazzy stylings have a pop economy (melodic brevity, choruses) and the material is wide ranging from a deep but spare treatment of St James Infirmary (can you hear Dylan's Blind Willie McTell in here as I do?) through to the old spiritual Just A Closer Walk With Thee, Duke Ellington's Solitude and Day Dream, Thelonious Monk's title tune and Django Reinhardt's Blue Drag.

Henry writes a typically lyrical, informative and evocative essay (his liner notes are always worth reading in themselves) in which he notes it is impossible to overestimate the significance of this source music: Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet etc. And of course he is right.

But this is no mere homage, this music is vital and vibrant in these hands, and even the most familiar tunes sound fresh and, in places, fun.

Of course there is a Southern melancholy everywhere, inevitable in the post-Katrina context, but this album is just plain, flat out wonderful on every count.

A gem. 

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