Allen Toussaint: American Tunes

Sadly, American Tunes will mark the swan song of Allen Toussaint, the songwriter, pianist, producer and arranger so synonymous with late-20th-century New Orleans music that the city might as well just name the airport after him today and be done with it. Toussaint passed away last November while on tour in Spain, having only recently completed the sessions collected here.

It’s a doozy of a sendoff. Produced by Americana maven Joe Henry, American Tunes serves almost as a Toussaint for Dummies primer, from the rollicking barrelhouse solo-piano opener, the artist’s own “Delores’ Boyfriend,” to the nearly naked, emotionally delivered readings of his own classic “Southern Nights” and the always-poignant Paul Simon title track, “American Tune,” that close it out. Toussaint reportedly considered the recording an homage to one of his most beloved forebears, Roy “Professor Longhair” Byrd, and, again performing solo, he more than does justice to the two Prof-composed tracks on the album, “Hey Little Girl” and “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” as well as Earl King’s “Big Chief,” a Longhair signature and cornerstone NOLA anthem (two more Longhairs turn up as bonus tracks on the vinyl).

Producer Henry didn’t envision American Tunes strictly as a solo showcase though, and some of its most satisfying tracks feature the ace accompaniment of bassist David Piltch and drummer Jay Bellerose, with saxophonist Charles Lloyd and guitarist Bill Frisell.

If the presence of Lloyd and Frisell raises eyebrows, that’s probably because Toussaint never thought of himself as a jazz artist-he said he “dabbled.” But you’d never know it from his spirited, self-aware takes on Duke Ellington’s “Rocks in My Bed” and “Come Sunday” (both featuring the incomparable vocalist Rhiannon Giddens), Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom,” Fats Waller’s “Viper’s Drag,” Earl Hines’ “Rosetta” and especially Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debby,” given a good-natured, nearly old-timey patina here.

As if he needed to prove there was even more to him, Toussaint also cut a version of “Danza, Op. 33,” written by the 19th-century Romantic composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk and so opulent and dashing-with orchestral arrangement from Van Dyke Parks-you’ll envision ball gowns and top hats as it plays out.

Purchase this issue from Barnes & Noble or Apple Newsstand. Print and digital subscriptions are also available.