Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint: Rerouting the River

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Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello
By Jimmy Katz
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Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint
By Jimmy Katz
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Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello
By Jesse Dylan
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Allen Toussaint in the studio recording A River in Reverse
By Jesse Dylan
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Elvis Costello in the studio recording A River in Reverse
By Jesse Dylan

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Two musical forces from wildly different backgrounds and a full generation apart—one steeped in 1950s New Orleans R&B, the other forged in the punk-new wave movement of 1970s London—came together late last year to work on some songs in the wake of the devastation that Hurricane Katrina brought on the city of New Orleans. The result of their unlikely collaboration is the powerfully cathartic The River in Reverse.

On the surface, it would appear that Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello have very little in common; as odd a pairing as bangers and rice or red beans and mash. As it turns out, these two creative spirits — each a master craftsman who has exhibited a refined, “scary brilliance” throughout his career — have more in common than meets the eye. And together they proved to be a potent songwriting team on The River in Reverse.

A collection of Toussaint tunes from his golden years at Minit Records in New Orleans, along with new pieces written in tandem by Elvis and Allen in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, this upcoming Verve release is characterized by catchy pop constructions with kicking horn lines, clever wordplay laced with vivid imagery and dripping with irony, passionate vocals and requisite soul. Elvis’ current working band — The Imposters featuring Pete Thomas on drums, Davey Faragher on bass and Steve Nieve on Hammond B3 organ — is augmented on theses sessions (produced by Joe Henry and recorded at Sunset Sound studios in Los Angeles and Piety Street studios in New Orleans) by longtime Toussaint sidemen like saxophonist Amadee Castenell and trumpeter Joe “Foxx” Smith, along with other noteworthy Crescent City players like trombonist Big Sam Williams and baritone saxophonist Brian “Breeze” Cayolle. Together they resurrect classic Toussaint tunes like “Nearer to You” (a majestic, gospel flavored pop ballad originally written as a vehicle for Betty Harris), the swaggering N’awlins funk of “All These Things,” the anthemic “Freedom for the Stallion” and the gospel-tinged “On Your Way Down,” along with the beautiful lament “Tears, Tears and More Tears” (originally recorded by Lee Dorsey) and the slamming, socially-charged funk of “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” Newer offerings like the edgy and incisive “Broken Promise Land,” the rolling, Fess-informed “Ascension Day” and Elvis’ chilling, dirgelike title track about the flooding of the Crescent City resonate with particularly deep meaning for those people displaced from their New Orleans homes by Katrina’s wrath.

The genesis of this unlikely collaboration came about within the span of a whirlwind week when both Costello and Toussaint found themselves playing on the same bill at a number of different benefit concerts in New York for Hurricane Katrina victims. Costello explains how the process unfolded both organically and rapidly:

“Allen had been working with Joe Henry in the spring and the summer of last year on that I Believe to My Soul album [a Southern soul collection featuring new recordings by Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Ann Peebles, Mavis Staples and Billy Preston that was released on the Rhino/Work Song/Hear Music label and distributed through Starbucks franchises last year]. I had also seen Allen in April of that year at Jazz Fest in New Orleans, where we played on the same bill. That’s the first time we had seen each other since I was working in New Orleans in the late ’80s on the Spike record that Allen played on. So it was great to see him and I was thrilled that he made the record with Joe Henry and that it turned out so good.

“Later that summer, I was on holiday up in Vancouver Island when Katrina hit (Aug. 29). And, of course, first of all you’re pretty shocked by what you’ve seen on TV and then you start to think about people you know from the city and you start trying to trace friends and all the sorts of things that people were doing. And I called Joe Henry to see if he knew how Allen was doing. Then little by little in the next couple of days I heard that he had made it to New York. Shortly after that, I went down to play the Bumbershoot Festival (in Seattle) and Allen was in my mind, so I did his tune ‘Freedom for the Stallion’ in my show on my own, just voice and guitar. I closed that show with his ‘All These Things.’ That was just my way of sending out a little message the way you do with music, without really knowing where it goes.”

With Toussaint still on his mind, Costello next traveled to North Carolina to work on a film project. “And when I was down there a call came in from Wynton Marsalis wanting both Diana (Krall) and myself to appear at Rose Hall at a benefit (on Sept. 17),” he explains. “It was an existing gala which he had co-opted to be a Katrina-related benefit show, and then expanded it from an exclusively jazz bill to incorporating singer-songwriters, people from classical music and all sorts of other musicians. And I said to Wynton, ‘Let’s get Allen Toussaint.’ I knew Allen was already in New York and I had just done this song of his and I thought it would be a great thing if we could do it together on the show. So they got Allen’s number and when I landed in New York for the benefit, there was Allen’s voice on my phone. We immediately started planning and within a couple of days we were at Rose Hall performing ‘Freedom for the Stallion.’”

That Rose Hall gala was held on a Saturday night and broadcast live on PBS (a live CD, Higher Ground: Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert, subsequently came out on Blue Note Records). While the music that night went until midnight in spacious Rose Hall, the party continued in nearby Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, where musicians proceeded to mix it up on the bandstand until 4 a.m. Costello was swept up by the celebratory atmosphere and hung at Dizzy’s ’til the wee hours, but upon returning home he was intent on getting up early enough the next morning to check out Toussaint’s noontime solo set downtown at Joe’s Pub.

Toussaint had narrowly escaped the wrath of Katrina himself, catching a charter bus out of town to Baton Rouge, sleeping overnight in the airport and then flying directly to New York the next day. But what he left behind suffered the most severe effects of the hurricane. While his home near the Fairgrounds racetrack (site of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival) experienced terrible water damage, his Sea-Saint studio — the site of innumerable recordings since the ’70s — is, for all intents and purposes, gone. “The main floor of my house was destroyed just about, but it’s fixable,” says Allen. “So I’m working on getting my house repaired, and there’s great hope for that. It will be fine. But Sea-Saint is pretty much wiped out, inside and out, too.”

Since escaping to New York, Toussaint had been performing these solo concerts as a Sunday brunch set at Joe’s Pub, an intimate showcase club connected to the Public Theater in the heart of the East Village. And it was while attending one of these Sunday brunch sets that Costello first got his epiphany of collaborating with the great New Orleans pianist, producer and prolific songwriter. “I had the idea, having seen Allen play that solo show at Joe’s Pub the afternoon following the Rose Hall concert, that there would be no better thing than to have a songbook record out on Allen Toussaint. I thought, ‘He’s gone through this terrible tragedy and yet he’s back to work now. And he has all this music. It needs to be heard right now, and maybe I can help do this!’”

With that idea brewing in the back of his head, Costello went on to perform a second Katrina benefit the following Wednesday (Sept. 21) at Madison Square Garden. Coincidentally, Toussaint’s crew of fellow New Orleans evacuees functioned as the house band for this gala. “A number of us were going to sing with Allen’s band at that show,” Costello recalls. “It was myself, Lenny Kravitz, Irma Thomas, Art Neville, the Dixie Cups and Paul Simon. And I was asked to sing ‘Yes We Can,’ which I was only too glad to do because that was the right song to sing right then. I also suggested singing ‘All the Way Down,’ because I said there’s a promise that’s gotta be kept here. And I asked Allen if it was OK if I took the word ‘girl’ out of the second verse. Because in the original version it goes, ‘Girl, you think it’s an honor to have you around.’ It’s about a girl who’s moving uptown and leaving her friends behind, and I figured it could have another meaning to this song right now. So I sang it with that intention.”

On Saturday of that busy week (Sept. 24), Costello and Toussaint found themselves on the bill of a third Katrina benefit. “This was at Town Hall for the New Yorker Festival, which again had been co-opted to be a Katrina benefit,” says Costello. “Allen played in the first half, I played in the second half of the show. There was a big, wide cast of writers and musicians on this show, ranging from Woody Allen and Calvin Trillin to Buckwheat Zydeco and the Rebirth Brass Band. And I wrote a song that afternoon that gathered together some of the thoughts that had been circling around in my mind in the last several hours. It was ‘The River in Reverse.’ I wrote it the afternoon of the show in ten minutes and played it off a music stand that night at the concert. My thoughts address a number of concerns in the lyric, and I don’t think you have to be a detective to work out what I’m speaking about.”

Around this time, Costello got a call from Joe McEwen, head of A&R at Verve/Forecast Records, who posed an intriguing idea. “He said, ‘Have you thought about doing a record with Allen?” knowing that we had played together. And I said, ‘Well, funny enough, yes.’ I was still mulling over the idea of doing a songbook on Allen, which was right down Verve’s alley when you consider the label’s heritage of great songbook records. So then we started to have a conversation about what the record could actually be and whether it could also have a place for some new songs as well. Because I wanted to continue the story so it wouldn’t just be about the past, it would be about the future as well; not just doing Allen’s old songs and bringing them right to the moment but actually writing some brand new songs with him.”

Costello adds that the whole project came together remarkably fast.
“I’d say it took about a week from the idea initially coming to me to the point where I was actually having the first conversation with Verve to me actually playing one of the songs that’s on the record.”

And so a project was born between these unlikeliest of collaborators from disparate backgrounds.

Born on Jan. 14, 1938 in Gert Town, a funky industrial neighborhood on the fringe of uptown New Orleans, Toussaint became a whiz-kid writer-producer and ubiquitous session pianist for Minit Records during its flush years from the late ’50s to the early ’60s. In the studio he was responsible for crafting such monster hits as Ernie K. Doe’s “Mother-in-Law,” Lee Allen’s “Walking with Mr. Lee” and Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Do,” while also penning a string of hook-laden hit tunes for such popular Crescent City artists as Irma Thomas (“It’s Raining,” “Ruler of My Heart”), Benny Spellman (“Fortune Teller,” “Lipstick Traces”) and Lee Dorsey (“Working in a Coal Mine,” “Ride Your Pony”). Toussaint’s own syncopated “Java,” which first appeared on his 1958 solo debut for RCA, The Wild Sounds of New Orleans, became a million-seller for trumpeter Al Hirt in 1963, while his catchy, upbeat “Whipped Cream” from that same instrumental album was the title track of a popular Herb Alpert album of the ’60s and later became universally recognized as theme song for TV’s “The Dating Game.” Two other Toussaint-penned songs became mega-hits in the ’70s — “Yes We Can” for the Pointer Sisters and “Southern Nights” for Glen Campbell.

While Toussaint was steeped in the R&B tradition of 1950s New Orleans and had come under the pianistic spell of Professor Longhair at an early age, Elvis Costello grew up in Liverpool in the shadow of the Beatles before tapping into the UK punk movement of the mid-70s. The son of British bandleader Ross McManus, he was born Declan Patrick McManus on Aug. 25, 1954. While working as a computer programmer during the mid-70s, he began to perform solo in pubs and folk clubs under his real name before joining the folk-rock group Flip City in 1976. A demo tape of original tunes that he cut at the time ultimately landed him a record deal in 1977 with England’s upstart Stiff Records. Taking the stage name Elvis (for Presley) Costello (his mother’s maiden name), this nerdy-looking, bespectacled singer-songwriter kick-started the new wave movement with his powerhouse debut album, My Aim Is True, which was released to much critical acclaim during the summer of 1977. Combining punk tension with intelligent lyrics and sly observations on life, he scored hits with punchy power-pop numbers like “Alison,” “Watching the Detectives” and “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” on that very promising first offering.

The mightily prolific Costello has gone on to record more than two dozen fully realized albums since that celebrated debut—nearly one project a year since 1977—and along the way he has also engaged in a number of daring collaborations, including his acclaimed 1998 partnership with Burt Bacharach on Painted From Memory, his classical experiment with the Brodsky Quartet on 1993’s The Juliet Letters, his collaboration with Swedish opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter on 2001’s For the Stars and his work with the Mingus Big Band on 2005’s Tonight at Noon: Three or Four Shades of Love (on which he wrote lyrics for the Mingus composition “Invisible Lady”).

Toussaint and Costello did work together on at least a couple of occasions prior to The River in Reverse. Their first studio encounter happened back in 1983 on Costello’s Punch The Clock. “A very unexpected invitation to make a version of ‘Walking on Thin Ice’ came in from Yoko Ono in 1983, at a time when I happened to be carrying a horn section in my lineup,” Costello recalls. “We got to New Orleans and Allen answered the call to produce the record. And it was a most peculiar song to end up collaborating on, but we ended up making a great record on this thing. Yoko’s version of it was pretty far out, and we made it into something else. Of course, I stored that experience away...working with Allen and how much I’ve enjoyed it...through a few years to the next time that I could see a way to collaborate. And that opportunity came in 1989 when I made Spike.”

Perhaps his most eclectic project up to that time, Spike featured several different instrumental groupings, one of which included Toussaint. “One of the ideas I had was to go to New Orleans to record,” says Costello. “Allen played piano on ‘Deep Dark Truthful Mirror,’ which was incredible. It was a bare-bones track when we got there, just acoustic guitar and voice, and he just basically arranged it because his piano part just gave so much definition to the song so that the weight of every section was exactly understood. And not only was it wonderful, but there were four takes that he did, each of which were completely different. I wish I could go back and get the multitracks and hear the other ones. I never kept a tape of the others, but they were all different. The one I selected was the one that just appealed to me at that moment, and we built everything else around Allen’s performance.”

It would be another 16 years before Costello and Toussaint would hook up again for The River in Reverse. “In retrospect, I regret that I didn’t carry on that musical connection then,” says Elvis, “and I feel poorer for having not done that. But that’s where my head was at that point in my life. And despite the really drastic circumstances in which I found myself back in contact with Allen, I’m so glad that we’re back to working together.”

He adds that it was very emotional going down to New Orleans in December to record two tracks — Toussaint’s “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” and “All These Things.” “When it was decided that we were going to do some of this record in New Orleans, which I felt instinctively was the right thing to do, it was important not just to have the romantic idea of going there but to really know what we were getting into. Because Piety had not been back in operation that long and we also had to consider just the practical thing of getting somewhere to stay in New Orleans — because it was hard to get information in the preceding weeks about what condition the city was in. But information became more plentiful every day, and every week brought more openness of the city. And once the city was open officially, it became more possible that you could go there and actually have a place to stay where you weren’t taking beds from the resources of necessary work that had to be done. Not too many people were thinking of going there as tourists back in the early part of December. In fact, we had dinner the first night that we were in New Orleans and we were the only people in the restaurant who weren’t insurance assessors.

“So when we finally cut ‘Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?’ down there, that was worth the whole thing,” he continues. “That’s a song which seems, to my mind, to apply to this moment more than ever, particularly when you see what people have been offered in response to this terrible sequence of events. It really points up what a bad deal a lot of people are getting day to day anyway without a hurricane or a flood. So to record this particular tune in New Orleans carried a special meaning to me. If we had done nothing else, just to cut that track at Piety studios...it had such a fantastic feeling of spontaneity and soul. It’s the kind of thing that would’ve been impossible to reproduce anywhere else but New Orleans.”

Their collaborative process was kicked off the previous month in Los Angeles by their joint collaboration on “Ascension Day,” which is a minor-key reworking of Professor Longhair’s anthemic “Tipitina” with additional words by Costello. “That was really the first one that we did together,” says Costello. “We had played around with a couple of very, very sketchy ideas before that but the flow of writing together came after ‘Ascension Day.’”

Adds Toussaint, “I consider Fess our Bach of rock, and I had been playing that piece like that in a minor mode for quite a while. It has sort of a classical air, but it’s not as far removed from Fess as one might think because with the melodic line it’s still ‘Tipitina.’ And when Elvis heard me play this at Joe’s Pub, he heard it with a brand new light and immediately thought about adding lyrics to it. I never thought about adding lyrics in that way, but Elvis through his audible lens heard it entirely different. So he added lyrics to it and a melodic line that was just so complementary to the original piece. That’s the kind of magic you would hope would happen in a songwriting partnership. Every now and then it happens, and it definitely happened that time. I’m sure Fess would be proud.”

Adds Costello, “That particular piece is of great interest to me because when I saw the show that Allen played at Joe’s Pub, which I was amazed to find were Allen’s first-ever solo concerts, there was so much freedom in hearing him play that. It was so remarkably vivid, it was almost as if he were opening up the door of everything that you wondered about in his songwriting. And there were things in his solo playing on those familiar tunes that were characteristic in the arrangement on the original recordings from the early ’60s. When you hear it on record, it’s totally evocative of that time. But when Allen played those same tunes solo, I suddenly heard them as even older; I started hearing Jelly Roll Morton in it. And when he played ‘Tipitina’ in minor-key variation, I started to hear way back into the 19th century. And as I listened, pictures opened up in my head of a completely different society of New Orleans as expressed in music. Maybe that’s fanciful and a little crazy thought and I don’t think that it’s essential that everybody see it that way, but I’m just trying to explain how it affected me.

“And obviously, I had done this thing of writing lyrics for existing music quite a few times now...not just collaborating with somebody who could talk back to me but actually writing lyrics for existing pieces. For example, I wrote lyrics for seven Mingus pieces where I sing much as a soloist would do. I’m not an adept instrumentalist; I can’t improvise in that sense. But I can hear complex parts, and I could hear another possibility for ‘Tipitina.’ I heard another vocal line that to my mind was very obvious and it seemed a natural leading voice against Allen’s beautiful accompaniment. And maybe there’s a presumption to adding words to something that already exists. I mean, ‘Tipitina’ already has words, but ‘Tipitina’ minor mode didn’t. And the configurations and harmonization that Allen was playing on that piece opened up pictures in my head that ultimately inspired the text.

“So I came in to Allen with my idea for adding lyrics to his minor-key ‘Tipitina.’ He played it down and I sang it and there it was. It was complete. And it actually opened the door to our writing collaboration because once the dam broke open then the next thing that happened was we had four hands on the piano and began creating a dialogue back and forth. I would write an opening statement; Allen would complement it. And by the end of the day we had four very different types of collaboration going—one where I was purely lyricist, one where we were completing each other’s musical sentences, one where we were writing a dialogue of sections and so on. And by then we knew that we had a substantial part of the record that could be comprised of new compositions.”

For Costello, who grew up in Liverpool with a great love of New Orleans R&B, this songwriting partnership with Toussaint was one of the most satisfying endeavors of his career. “The first song of Allen’s that I ever heard, although I didn’t know at the time that he wrote it, was ‘Fortune Teller,’ because all the groups in Liverpool played that song. The Rolling Stones had even recorded it, but I didn’t know that Allen wrote that or a lot of these other songs that I was hearing at the time on the radio. But when I heard a Lee Dorsey record, that’s when I really got curious who the songwriter and producer of those sessions was because those records are so distinct. It turned out to be Allen, of course. So then I started to study a bit more and find out who this person was.

“A bit later came Allen’s collaboration with the Band, who were a group that I adored. That record, Rock of Ages (Capitol, 1972), was probably the most vivid version of what they did in live performance, and it has Allen’s horn arrangements all over it. That went in pretty deep, and I’ve been a big fan of Allen’s ever since. So it was a tremendous honor to work with him on this project. There’s nothing I’ve enjoyed more than making this record.”

As for the fate of New Orleans, a great American city destroyed by a natural disaster and left to rot by administrative incompetence and governmental neglect, Toussaint remains eternally optimistic. “It’s gonna be better,” he says of his beloved Crescent City. “It’s going to be better than ever. It’ll take a while, but the powers that be need to live and learn and do things differently. And I think they will.”

Originally published in July/August 2006

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