Allen Toussaint: “The Bright Mississippi”
Ask any raconteur who’s worth his weight in salt and he’s certain to tell you the same thing: It’s not the story you’re telling that matters so much as how you’re telling it. It’s like in that movie The Aristocrats, where a zillion different comedians tell the very same joke over and over again, each offering their own embellishments and, thus, their own flavor, by way of illustrating the point that the richest payoff doesn’t come from the punch-line; it comes from the build-up.
So never mind the fact that, on The Bright Mississippi, Allen Toussaint tells a set of stories that have all been told before. That couldn’t be further from the point. And don’t for a minute think that, just because a lot of these songs are “standards,” there’s anything in the least bit “standard” about the way Toussaint delivers them. There’s a gravity to this set that says these are stories worth hearing again, and a spark of mischief whispering that you’ve never heard them told quite like this.
Toussaint himself has never told these stories before, of course, but that doesn’t mean they’re new to him, or that they aren’t somehow connected to the larger narrative at work in his career. The twelve tracks assembled for this record are all songs written in, written about, or at least associated with the city of New Orleans– the city that happens to serve as the primary setting for Toussaint’s own city. These are the songs that Toussaint grew up with, the songs that gave him inspiration in his formative years as a musician– and it’s easy to hear the impact they had on his own soulful funk and R&B tunes. But what these songs mean to Toussaint’s music is less important than what they mean to his spirit, and to the spirit of the city he so dearly loves: These songs are Bourbon Street brawlers, Mardi Gras romps, funeral dirges, roadhouse blues, and churchhouse spirituals, capturing in them all the spirit and history of a place that’s very specific but not necessarily bound to geography.
That Toussaint is recording these songs for the first time is evident from the first joyful notes, sounding like a trumpet call to exploration and excavation; the great pianist leads a band that shows a deep appreciation but not a strict reverence, and he himself performs them not as dusty old folk tunes or esoteric jazz pieces but as celebrations of song and spirit, unbound to any particular genre– indeed, he plays the jazz cuts like they were rollicking funk numbers, and in his delirious improvisation you can even hear little snippets of some of his own compositions. The typically-solemn spiritual number “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” is turned into a punch-drunk strut, and secular numbers like “Blue Drag” are filled with a familiar sense of play. Throughout, Toussaint and his band sound like they’re discovering these songs for the first time, feeling them out not with fear and trembling but with humor and good cheer and a taste for adventure.
But they paint in deep blues, as well, as though to remind us that not everything– in life or in New Orleans– is a party. And yet, even on the more somber numbers, the tone isn’t one of sadness so much as a wistful melancholy. Ellington’s “Solitude” closes the set not as a lament but as an after-hours hymn to stillness and serenity, and his “Day Dream” is appropriately yearning. “Dear Old Southland” is something else altogether, shifting from a lonesome reverie into a satisfied revelry and then back again.
The set is produced by Joe Henry, who has a gift for making this kind of thing sound spontaneous and free-spirited but not frivolous or lightweight, and Toussaint is joined by a backing band that’s full of ace musicians, including bassist David Piltch, clarinetist Don Byron (who adds a winking sensuality to “Just a Closer Walk…”), guitarist Marc Ribot, and trumpeter Nicholas Payton. Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau play on a track apiece, and special mention ought be made of drummer Jay Bellerose, who coaxes strange poetry from hand percussion instruments and high drama from seemingly simple cymbal-work; the smallest flicker of his mischievous musical imagination can totally change the course of a song’s tone or shape. And yet, in the end, this feels like Toussaint’s show through and through, a showcase for him both as instrumentalist and as band leader, sounding like an extension of his previous work even while it stands as something utterly unique in his history. He is the master storyteller here; the others, sympathetic support.
And this is all without mentioning, mind you, that Toussaint sings on only one track here, the weary blues of “Long, Long Journey,” a gesture that’s pregnant with significance, or that this is such a departure from this veteran artist– so different from anything he’s done before– that its mere existence, the fact that something so daring would come from an artist who’s now into his seventies, is itself mind-blowing. But here’s the thing, stated simply and without exaggeration: The Bright Mississippi is a masterpiece, a stone classic, a story that’s been told many times over but has never been told like this, and can never be told like this again. It’s pure joy, a flight of spirit and adventure and imagination, and as such it’s not enough to call it a fine record, or even a great record; this right here, it’s nothing short of liberating.