CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - R&B legend Allen Toussaint has done with his music what America has been forced to do since Hurricane Katrina laid waste to his hometown — take a new look at what is in danger of fading away.
His new album is a collection of New Orleans classics such as “St. James Infirmary” and songs from outside the Big Easy that Toussaint reworked into the style he grew up hearing, like Thelonious Monk’s “Bright Mississippi,” from which the album takes its name, “The Bright Missisippi.”
The result is a departure from 1960s and ‘70s Rhythm & Blues and pop tunes for which the 71-year-old pianist and composer is famous, hits such as Lee Dorsey’s “Working in a Coal Mine” and the Rolling Stones’ “Fortune Teller.”
But if the album differs from Toussaint’s best-known work, it couldn’t be closer to his roots in New Orleans, a city undergoing a slow recovery from the 2005 hurricane. There, the traditions of marching bands and jazz funerals have endured.
“There’s been a resurgence of this kind of music,” Toussaint said. “Also, I’m very glad about the New Orleans traditional jazz brass bands who help keep this genre alive, even though it’s a little rougher than what we’re doing on this particular album.”
The soft-spoken Toussaint recently spoke with Reuters by phone before heading on tour to St. Paul, Minnesota, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Calgary, where on June 22 he headlines a jazz festival with Big Easy stalwarts, Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
“The Bright Mississippi” is filled with performances by leading lights of today’s jazz scene, including clarinetist Don Byron, who joins Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer Toussaint for the trip through old New Orleans with the song, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”
In a bit of musical irony, Toussaint’s new songs offer his fans a fresh look at older tunes such as “Egyptian Fantasy” penned by jazz pioneer Sidney Bechet and “Winin’ Boy Blues” from the masterful Jelly Roll Morton.
The idea for “The Bright Mississippi” came from long-time collaborator Joe Henry, who also produced Toussaint’s 2006 record with Elvis Costello, “The River In Reverse.”
Katrina, and the bungled response to the natural disaster, loomed large over “River,” which debuted at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival after the storm.
But now Toussaint, whose own house was destroyed in the flooding that followed the hurricane, is optimistic about the city’s recovery and the state of its music scene.
While musicians have struggled — many still live hours outside the city and return to play — efforts like the Musicians Village, spearheaded by singer Harry Connick Jr., and other programs have been bringing them back, Toussaint said.
“I’m excited about it, because we’re flexing new muscle,” he said. “Things we didn’t know we could do are being done, so the future looks really good.”
A high-note to emerge from the Katrina debacle has been that the public reacquainted itself with New Orleans’ unique people and culture, he said.
“This was really an enlightenment for me. It’s rejuvenated the thoughts I’ve always had that people are basically good and love their fellow man. It’s not always apparent, but at our time of crisis I really saw that in action.”
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte