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Listening Post: ‘American Tunes,’ The Final Record of Allen Toussaint


Allen Toussaint, “American Tunes” (Nonesuch).

Not just a great 2016 record but a towering but tragic moment in the history of American recording. Maybe this would have been the final record of Allen Toussaint if he’d actually known he was going to die of a sudden heart attack in November of last year at the age of 77. Maybe, he’d have found it perfectly fitting to have the great Joe Henry produce it for him, Bill Frisell accompany him and Charles Lloyd sit in on Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom.” Maybe he’d have found it perfectly apt to go out with Rhiannon Giddens’ singing Duke Ellington’s “Rocks in My Bed” and “Come Sunday” with him at the piano, and Van Dyke Parks arrange Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “Danza.” It’s hard to imagine a valedictory Allen Toussaint disc with a repertoire more majestically optimal than this one – with everything from Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debbie,” and Earl Hines’ “Rosetta” to Professor Longhair’s “Hey, Little Girl” and “Mardi Gras in New Orleans.” It’s still tragic to have such an accidentally perfect farewell to a magnificient American musical life. He was ubiquitous in New Orleans but known to relatively few everywhere else except among lovers of New Orleans music, who treasured him as a pianist, composer, song producer, arranger, musical titan. Tom Piazza writes in the notes “He was New Orleans. If you lived in the Crescent City, you might have seen him everywhere – at a nightclub gig, at the supermarket, at someone’s wedding, or someone’s funeral. More to the point, perhaps you would have heard him everywhere via his songs....’Mother-in-Law,’ “Fortune Teller,’ ‘A Certain Girl,’ ‘Holy Cow,’ ‘Yes We Can Can,’ ‘Working in the Coal Mine.’” But “it was one of Hurrican Katrina’s bitter ironies that as a result of the near destruction of New Orleans, and the loss of everything he owned, Allen Toussaint became much more visible and audible to the world at large.” He toured the world with Elvis Costello, made great all-star records under his own name (“Bright Mississippi” in 2009) and, on this record, can’t help installing himself as an American classic, wherever such things are known in music.

4 stars (out of four)

Jeff Simon)