On the final day of the 40th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, songwriting genius and piano wizard Allen Toussaint will take the Acura stage Sunday afternoon to add to his own impressive Jazz Fest record: The concert will mark his 34th Jazz Fest appearance.
Toussaint, one of the most influential artists in the New Orleans musical firmament, first made his mark on the city’s rhythm and blues scene in the 1960s and has enjoyed success ever since as a renowned a musician, songwriter, producer and arranger.
His first solo album in more than a decade, Bright Mississippi, was released April 21. That the album’s title, taken from the song of same name by Thelonius Monk, evokes the powerful waterway so iconic of New Orleans and its history is no coincidence: The project is a return not necessarily to Toussaint’s own roots, but rather those of his hometown. Instead of playing his own songs, either from his massive existing catalog or new, Toussaint takes on covers of 11 New Orleans jazz classics.
“We associate the Mississippi river with being an integral part of New Orleans history,” Toussaint says. And so the album’s songs, which include standards such as “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” “St. James Infirmary,” and “West End Blues,” are an integral part of New Orleans musicology. To the prolific songwriter, however, they were, in terms of his recording career, uncharted ground, he says.
“I knew some of these songs were in existence, but I’d never been in an environment where these were in my repertoire to perform,” Toussaint says. “Like we did ‘My Solitude,’ which has been around since before Christ basically. Even though I knew that song existed, I had never played it before. There were many songs I’d never heard before, like “Day Dream,” by Duke Ellington, which is the most beautiful song.”
The project was the brainchild of producer Joe Henry, who had also produced Toussaint’s collaborative album with Elvis Costello, The River in Reverse, as well as a showcase album called I Believe To My Soul that featured Toussaint and other R&B legends, such as Irma Thomas, Ann Peebles, Billy Preston and Mavis Staples.
Henry assembled some of the tunes for Bright Mississippi, and placed Toussaint with a studio ensemble that included Nicholas Peyton on trumpet, guitarist Mark Ribot and Jay Bellerose on drums. Taking the songs at face value, Toussaint says he approached them with ease, staking faith in his own New Orleans upbringing to bring the songs’ core to life.
“I just brought myself to the songs without thinking of actually changing them,” he says. “I actually thought just me playing these songs would have an aspect of me and New Orleans. I didn’t even change their general tempo. We got together, everyone just played what they would have played on it, and it was just magic.”
The sessions only took a couple weeks, Toussaint says, “because there wasn’t any overdubbing or any studio concoctions. We all played at the same time. We had such wonderful musicians, and it was quite a joy, because that’s music at it’s finest. That’s music as it’s supposed to be performed. But we also had different combinations. Like on a couple pieces, we just had duets. It was just a wonderful, off-the-beaten path venture for me.”
For Toussaint, the new album is just lagniappe, compared to the bevy of honors and projects he has pursued over the past year. In addition to touring and keeping a regular monthly Sunday brunch gig at Joe’s Pub in New York City, Toussaint received the 2009 Grammy Trustees Award in February. He also participated in the all-star New Orleans-blowout performance during the Grammy Awards telecast alongside jazzman Terence Blanchard, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and rapper Lil Wayne.
“The Grammys were wonderful,” Toussaint recalls. “I was honored, and I felt every bit of that. Everything was done so first-class. That was the place to be, and I’m so glad they thought enough of what I do to include me.”
In December, Toussaint shared a stage with jazz singer Cassandra Wilson and songwriter and Cajun musician Zachary Richard at the House of Blues the inaugural New Orleans Songwriters Festival. Wrapping up the “Songfest” weekend with a joint concert, Toussaint was recognized for his impressive output of R&B hits, including Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-in-Law,” Irma Thomas’ “Ruler of My Heart” and “Fortune Teller,” which has been covered by the Hollies, the Rolling Stones and the Who.
Of course, there are some songs that belong only to Toussaint, such as the mystical “Southern Nights.” Though it also achieved success on the country charts through Glen Campbell’s cover version, it was a hit for Toussaint himself and remains one of his most enduring songs, he says. Jazz Fest audiences can expect to hear it and many of Toussaint’s other well-known songs on Sunday.
“I intend to do songs that I’ve written over the years,” he says. "We will have a medley of songs that everyone knows and can count on, but I plan to add many new songs this year.”
Festival-goers who don’t get enough Toussaint live can take him home with them, so to speak, with the 2009 Jazz Fest poster. Created by artist James Michalopoulos, the poster features Toussaint playing his piano in the middle of the French Quarter. For Toussaint, a longtime festival performer, it’s just the icing on the cake of getting to perform in front of thousands of adoring fans and fellow New Orleans lovers.