I’ve encountered Allen Toussaint in the middle of the Fair Grounds, the site of the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, on a sweltering day, looking nonetheless cool and unruffled in a blazer and ascot. I remember running into him in Manhattan, as light snow fell, in 2006, after he’d been forced to relocate to New York City, hailing a cab in a neat suit and polka-dot tie, seeming serene despite all else. I’ve heard him whip up old-school R&B frenzy at the Fair Grounds, listened to him stun a packed house into observant silence at Manhattan’s Village Vanguard jazz club.
Last month, President Obama awarded Toussaint the National Medal of Arts for “his contributions as a composer, producer, and performer,” according to the White House website, and “sustaining his city’s rich tradition of rhythm and blues and lifting it to the national stage.” At 75, Toussaint embodies the New Orleans tradition of blending styles to create timeless hits, picking up whereFats Domino left off in the 1950s. Since the 1960s, he has created scores of hits for a stunningly wide range of musicians, from the Lee Dorsey’s 1960s classic “Working in the Coalmine” to 2006’s “River in Reverse” with Elvis Costello, and including Dr. John, Patti LaBelle and Glen Campbell (“Southern Nights”).
There’s a great recent chapter to Toussaint’s career—as a solo performer and bandleader. This will be highlighted when he performs at Lincoln Center Out of Doors (8/11) and through the release of the CD/DVD set “Songbook,” due from Rounder September 24.
This latest chapter began in 2005. As writer Ashley Kahn explains in the liner notes to “Songbook”:
With a honed sense of dry humor, Toussaint calls 2005’s Hurricane Katrina his booking agent, crediting the storm for rebooting his career as a performer after flooding him out of home and studio. In order to recover – financially, musically, spiritually – Toussaint relocated to New York City and began to perform solo concerts, using Joe’s Pub on Lafayette Street as a home base. Buoyed by a groundswell of support, he worked at something that years of success in the studio had allowed him to avoid: getting truly comfortable on the stage by himself, laying claim to his own songs.
Modesty had a lot to do with it; Allen Toussaint still is not the first person one would go to for information on Allen Toussaint. “I’m not accustomed to talking about myself,” he once explained during a gig, “I talk in the studio with musicians. Or through my songs.”
And there’s some great, compact history included by Kahn in his track-by-track notes, like this bit:
With Toussaint, no experience was wasted, not even a two-year stint in the military that began in 1963. In ’64, he took his army band into the studio and under the name of The Stokes recorded “Whipped Cream,” a snappy instrumental with a jaunty horn line and a distinctive trumpet lead. Herb Alpert jumped on the melody a year later for the Tijuana Brass, recording it note-for-note, creating a hit single, a memorable album cover and a theme song for the TV sensation The Dating Game.
Toussaint talks about this in the DVD portion of “Songbook” (the CD documents two performances at Joe’s Pub, from 2009); he’ll also discuss it at Lincoln Center in a pre-concert interview with Nona Hendryx. Bill Bragin, who formerly programmed Joe’s Pub and who was responsible for Toussaint’s long residency there, produces this weekend’s Lincoln Center show. He formed a bond with the pianist as general manager of NYNO Records, which Toussaint founded in the 1990s with Joshua Feigenbaum. I’m sorry I’ll be out of town for this weekend’s performance and interview. But I’m about to dig into this new release, and I’m sure to speak at length with Toussaint about it.
Photo: Glade Bilby II