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CHEERS FOR THE SEASON

Charles Moore and Allen Toussaint

Every so often the wonders of musical synergy pop up to ignite the senses with aromas of revival in our metropolis.

This month’s soundtrack rings with ethereal elegance in Charles Moore Classical Guitar, Vol. 1, which in the Yuletide run-up we play in heavy rotation with Allen Toussaint’s Bright Mississippi.

Charles Moore is Deacon John’s brother and the anchoring bass in the Ivories, Deacon’s band – the longest-running R&B operation in Orleans Parish. Charles received New Orleans Magazine’s 2009 top billing in the Contemporary Jazz Bass category (a selection in which this columnist had no role).

Few artists in New Orleans move so fluidly through pop, jazz and the classical repertoire with the precision of Charles Moore. As a child in a sprawling, musically rich family of the 7th Ward, he fell in love with the rhythms of Andres Segovia, playing the records of the legendary Spaniard. Liner notes of the new album announce its “homage to the classical guitar master.” Moore’s older brother Raymond gave him lessons on classical guitar during his childhood.

Another sibling, Sybil Kein, grew up to become a poet, scholar and vocalist of Creole culture. In time, away from the rock ‘n’ roll venues with Deacon, Moore has had a long collaboration with Klein in both performing and recording Creole songs. In a new turn, Classical Guitar Vol. 1 gathers compositions by J.S. Bach, Sulvius Leopold Weiss, Napoleon Coste, Fernando Sor and Moore’s other Spanish influence, Francisco Tarrega among the18 tracks. A sweetly loping execution of the madrigal “Greensleeves” is one of several traditional songs that display Moore’s poetic range on the acoustic guitar.

His tonal colorations on Tarrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” (“Memories of the Alhambra”) are tinted with intimations of Grenada and breezeways of the Moorish castle for which the song is titled. It is Tarrega’s homage to an architectural marvel that symbolized Iberia’s Islamic captivity before the age of the Spanish Armada.

Cultural memory of a different sort pervades Allen Toussaint’s Bright Mississippi. Since the 1950s, Toussaint, the genius composer, arranger and producer for other musicians, has been an understated recording artist in his own right.

The original LP Southern Nights of a generation ago was the gold standard in Toussaint’s work as a vocalist on keyboard until The River in Reverse, featuring Elvis Costello, was released the year after Hurricane Katrina.

Bright Mississippi plants Toussaint staunchly in the jazz canon as if he had been there all along. The improvisational hand in the 12 songs is striking for the tender touch, a style apart from the funk-laced signature of his rock status.

In fact this album is a vault beyond most of what he has done before, so full of beauty as to force the question: Why haven’t we had more Toussaint jazz?

His take on “St. James Infirmary” pares down the medium-tempo blues to a tightly-cadenced march that echoes his stately rearranging of Roy Byrd’s “Tipitina.” Toussaint’s version of “St. James” erases moaning horns and lets acoustic guitarist Marc Ribot roam. Ribot intones a delicate incantation of the blues from which Toussaint’s piano opens a rippling flow – suggesting a river of time.

The version of “West End Blues” features supremo Nicholas Payton who wisely avoids emulating Louis Armstrong’s classic opening, opting for a ruby tone as the octaves climb and then descend with a softer touch, notes ebbing as colors drain an evening sky. With Don Byron’s murmuring clarinet as counter-melody to Payton’s bravura trumpet, Toussaint’s choice of this song is remarkable for his restraint – letting woodwind and horn lay out the primary colors, taking all that attention, and then Toussaint waltzes in with a thrumming stream like a singer cutting loose from the sidemen. The balance in harmonies and melodic attack is graceful all the way through.

Toussaint lost nearly everything in Katrina’s floodwaters, yet his resilience from the album with Costello unto Bright Mississippi signals more than a comeback. Toussaint, who turns 72 next month, is at the summit of his artistic powers, more prolific than ever, and a genuine wonder to behold.
 

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