By: Kevin Schwartzbach
Allen Toussaint :: 05.19.09 :: Village Vanguard :: New York, NY
It can be hard to picture oneself basking in the sun at the gaping delta of the Mississippi River way down in New Orleans whilst surrounded by the towering buildings, coarse honks of taxicabs, and thick, ornery accents of New York City.
That's where Allen Toussaint comes in.
Over the course of his lengthy and prestigious career Toussaint has delved into quite a few different kinds of music, but all of it has been unmistakably New Orleans. His latest release and first solo album in over a decade is about as N'Orleans as it gets. Featuring songs by jazz greats such as Jelly Roll" Morton, Sidney Bechet, Thelonious Monk (quite possibly the coolest name ever) and many more, The Bright Mississippi (released April 21 on Nonesuch) is a rare excursion into jazz territory for the R&B legend - though one unfamiliar with Toussaint's music never would have guessed it after an evening of watching his spry fingers masterfully glide across the keyboard of his Steinway piano.
A hoard of people gathered outside the Village Vanguard waiting for a glimpse at just that. The crowd from The Bright Mississippi Band's early set spewed out onto the sidewalk with blissfully satiated looks on their faces, a sign of good things to come. Trumpeter Christian Scott's placid lament broke the silence to start off Sidney Bechet and John Reid's joint effort Egyptian Fantasy," instantaneously transporting the whole venue from The Big Apple to The Big Easy. A NOLA son himself, Scott appeared to be right at home trumpeting tunes of the bayou despite a proclivity towards jazz-fusion. At the young age of 22, the Berklee graduate has already released two critically acclaimed albums of his own, acquiring quite the reputation in the process. If you haven't yet heard of him, keep an eye out; this incredibly talented kid is poised to revolutionize music, as we know it - if he hasn't started the job already. Although it was Toussaint's name up on the marquee, Scott was often the one in the spotlight, and he filled it like a seasoned veteran.
Scott's lament was soon joined by Don Byron (clarinet, tenor saxophone), as the two began to feed off each other in a musical dialogue. Regardless of who was taking the lead, this type of New Orleans brand jazz sounds as if it is always trying to tell some wordless story. And Scott and Byron's intertwined melodies were undoubtedly imparting a sad tale. Byron, in his straw-woven hat and striped pink blazer, switched back and forth between his caressing clarinet and tenor saxophone, showing high levels of virtuosity on both. The two wind blowers gracefully laid down their instruments, letting Toussaint tell his own story with one of his trademark solos. Toussaint's piano playing mixes moments of somber seriousness with playful levity; an unaccompanied solo of musical non-sequiturs that rapidly jumped back and forth between times where Toussaint was pouring out his heart and lighthearted jingles that put a smile on everyone's face. An abrupt Mozart-esque piano lick gawkily placed in a sea of jazz actually caused Scott to burst out laughing at one point.
Beneath Toussaint, Scott and Byron's storytelling, the rhythm section - consisting of Marc Ribot
(guitar), David Pilch
(contrabass) and Jay Bellerose
(drums) - carried a harmonious wall of sound all night. On Blue Rag," a Django Reinhardt piece, Ribot abandoned his rhythmic duties and delivered a quintessential delta blues solo on a guitar that looked to be as old as the music he was playing. Ribot, another musician who tends to lean towards the fusion side of the genre, made the New Orleans style jazz his own (having been raised in the southland oferNewark).
The set closed with a real treat - the sweet serenading of Allen Toussaint's voice. Paul Simon's American Tune" seemed a natural fit for Toussaint's soft singing while Toussaint's own Southern Nights" finished the night off with the appropriate question, Have you ever felt a southern night?" As he sat there belting out his ode to the Crescent City it was clear that Allen Toussaint is New Orleans. Without him the swampy sound with we so identify with the City that Care Forgot" might not be what it is today.