Music For The Grim(m) Season:  Allen Toussaint, strolling with skeletons

Greetings, spookyfans!  Are you staying warm out there tonight?  It’s tooth-chattering out here in the Midwest, and we didn’t even get Buffalo’s snow!  (Buffalo has our deepest sympathies … for its snow-day off.  Wait, what are we saying?!  Never mind).  Out here in Chicago, we’re just thrilled not to be shoveling.

Now I don’t know about you, but a little dancing always warms me up.  A skeleton dance, though?  Not so much.  You can always hear the bones creaking and chattering as they move.  Not to mention that icy-cold grip.  Whoa.  Not my idea of a great dance partner.  However, I did recently listen (again) to a New Orleans album that I really like, by Allen Toussaint:  his post-Katrina recording The Bright Mississippi, issued in 2009 on the Nonesuch label.  Most of the tracks are numbers that all New Orleans musicians of whatever genre would know, such as “Dear Old Southland” or “St. James Infirmary.”  “Blue Drag,” however, with its easygoing, snappy rhythm and minor chords always stuck me as a perfect slow dance for skeletons … or a stroll, for that matter.  It’s a bit of gypsy jazz first recorded by Belgian hot-jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, but it never sounded quite like this before.

Now, there were only two or three big pop/rock, blues, soul/funk and R&B record producers in NOLA during the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st, and Allen Toussaint has been one of them.  In fact, he’s now the only one, having outlived his competition.  You may know him from some of the pop tunes he recorded himself, such as “Brickyard Blues,” but in fact most of his songs, like “Working in the Coalmine,” “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky” and “Mother-in-Law” were written for and recordced by others.  He also produced a lot of other artists over the years and collaborated with more.  Just a small sampling:  Dr. John, the Meters (which necessarily includes some of the Neville Brothers), Ernie K. Doe, Lee Dorsey, the Pointer Sisters and Patti LaBelle’s group Labelle.  toussaint himself was always one of the great pianists that New Orleans seems to produce in abundance, but his other recording work always seemed to overshadow that outside of New Orleans itself.

On The Bright Mississippi, however, it’s his piano playing that is showcased.  On that album, he performs in the company of a handful of top-flight jazz musicians, including trumpeter Nicholas Payton (one of my faves), clarinetist Don Byron, guitarist Marc Ribot, and bassist David Piltch (other tracks also included pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman).  Considering that Toussaint was never really into producing jazz and this was his first recording in a decade (unless you count The River In Reverse, which he cut in 2006 with Elvis Costello), I’d say that was a sign that Toussaint was mellowing … or that Katrina and the Flood had left its melancholy mark on him, just as it had on other NOLA denizens, and bluesy jazz that celebrated some traditional New Orleans songs wa his chosen method of expression.  Or perhaps it was just that he’d been exposed to so much jazz while making a few appearances (with Dr. John, we might add) on David Simon’s wonderful HBO series Treme that it rubbed off a bit.  In any case, this is certainly a pretty fine album, that’s for sure, and probably Toussaint’s first one ever that didn’t have a single song of his on it and was produced by someone else (Joe Henry).

Anyway, here’s hoping you enjoy this spooky tune.  But don’t be blue-dragging your ass out there in the cold, now.

Until next time,
Your own DJ SweetMarie


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