There are times when it's evident you are in the presence of greatness. Allen Toussaint's solo show at the Gésu was one of those instances. The experience of being in the master pianist-singer-songwriter-producer's living room, as he talked about the history of his tunes, was magical. He is responsible, in whole or in part, for so many milestone moments in American pop and R&B.
Opening with some of his earliest work, "Happy Time" and "Java," it was clear at the outset that he has a whole swath of pianistic history under his hands, from Bach to Scott Joplin. Needless to say, Toussaint is also a master of that specific style of New Orleans piano pioneered by Professor Longhair and James Booker, its torch carried by Dr. John and Toussaint himself. Nothing grooves the way New Orleans music does, and it was a revelation to hear someone who owns, lives and breathes that sound. All I can do as a Canadian piano player is learn it.
Toussaint had an affable manner, feeling like the uncle or grandfather regaling you with stories at the family reunion. He talked about the use of his tunes in all sorts of contexts, from "Sweet Touch of Love" in a new chocolate commercial to Devo's cover of "Workin' in a Coal Mine" being used in the "risqué cartoon" Heavy Metal. There was quite an amount of deference to the artists who popularized his tunes. He said of the Rolling Stones, "They rolled all the way to the bank! I hope they roll on forever." To the people who knew his music intimately, he said, "All the people who 'whooped' the first time 'round in 'Coal Mine,' you can't trust them! They're too hip!"
The only qualms one can have with an artist like Toussaint is that his repertoire is so vast he can't possibly cover it all. He leaned on the poppier side of his history, focusing on gorgeous ballads like "From a Whisper to a Scream" and "On Your Way Down." The hard grooving New Orleans R&B hits he had ("Mother-in-Law," "That Certain Girl") were mostly glossed over in medleys, though he did do a standout rendition of the Lee Dorsey tune "Yes We Can Can." Another Dorsey hit, "Everything I Do Gon’ Be Funky" (better known in the jazz world courtesy of Lou Donaldson) was the springboard for a stream-of-consciousness medley incorporating "Minute Waltz" and all-too-brief snatches of Longhair classics "Big Chief" and "Tipitina." "Southern Nights" included a long, dream-like monologue about its inspiration, going out into the backwoods of Louisiana to visit the relatives and ancestors, his delivery reminiscent of the winding dirt roads of his youth.
I'm no expert in Toussaint's music, and I learned a lot from last night's recital. He was playing songs I had never heard before, and songs that had receded to the back of my memory that I had no idea he was involved with. Many people I talked to around the festival were unaware of his contributions to popular music. If you have not checked out Mr. Allen Toussaint, there is no better time than now.
David Ryshpan is a jazz musician and writer. Some of his music can be found at [his Myspace]. More of his writing can be found at his blog, [Settled in Shipping] and you can also [follow him on Twitter].