Piano, Man

FOR NEARLY 40 years as a songwriter, producer, singer, pianist, and arranger, Allen Toussaint has been so integral a part of the New Orleans R&B scene that a rundown of his songs and the artists he's worked with pretty much charts its history. He wrote and produced "Mother-in-Law" for Ernie K-Doe, "Fortune Teller" for Benny Spellman, "Ruler of My Heart" and "It's Raining" for Irma Thomas, "Holy Cow" and "Working in a Coal Mine" for Lee Dorsey, and penned a slew of other songs covered by everybody from the Rolling Stones and Bonnie Raitt to Al Hirt and Glen Campbell. In one creative capacity or another, his career has crossed paths with international fans like Paul McCartney, The Band, Herb Alpert, Robert Palmer, Elvis Costello, Little Feat, the O'Jays, Patti LaBelle, Z.Z. Hill, the Pointer Sisters, and Paul Simon.

But at 58, revered by peers and comfortably ensconced in his own Sea-Saint Studios for the past 20 years, Toussaint is not ready to rest on his laurels. Last month he launched his new label, NYNO, along with his first new solo album in 18 years. Connected is a classy collection including a Professor Longhair tribute ("Pure Uncut Love"), simmering Crescent City funk ("All of It"), glistening peace-and-understanding ballads ("We're All Connected"), quirky bits of classic New Orleansiana, and even bits of gospel. Two additional CDs produced by Toussaint and jammed with new Toussaint compositions have also been issued: Whoever's Thrilling You by honey-voiced blues and soul singer (and erstwhile longshoreman) Wallace Johnson; and Amadee, a funkified jazz instrumental album by tenor saxophonist/flutist Amadee Castenell. Both are well-recorded sessions in elegant CD packages, making NYNO look and sound like a true labor of love.

Taking a break from a session with another NYNO artist, New Orleans R&B singer Larry Hamilton, the ever-gracious Toussaint speaks about the label's development: "It was actually the brainchild of Josh Feigenbaum (NYNO partner and head of New York-based MJI Broadcasting, a radio syndication outfit)--'cause we had been friends--to do a label thing and have it be the indigenous music of New Orleans. We talked about it for like three years before we actually got started. But we wanted to do it right and we wanted to present the New Orleans artists with integrity and proper promotion, and build careers and a good label."

The strategy is for NYNO to release about eight albums annually, with Toussaint involved in every recording. "Some projects may not need me to play the piano or to write the songs or to even arrange," he says. "But I will still be there to give my input, 'cause we want to assure that we get quality product." In pursuing strictly New Orleans-area artists, NYNO will rival only Rounder and Rounder-distributed Black Top as labels with national impacts featuring significant Louisiana rosters. Other artists already inked to NYNO are gospel singer/pianist Raymond Myles, versatile saxophonist Grace Darling, and trumpeter/singer James Andrews, who leads the funky New Birth Brass Band.

Although Toussaint is a talented pianist in the New Orleans tradition--he's heavily influenced by Professor Longhair--and a distinctive, soulful singer, he has recorded only a handful of albums under his own name (including the minor classic Southern Nights in 1975). He rarely performs in public, and basically has shunned a solo career for life in the studio. "I've always been a studio person," he explains. "It's just what I do. And whenever I recorded an album that was something on the side."

He was only 22 when he became the in-house writer, producer, and arranger for the legendary Minit Records (you might call it the New Orleans equivalent of Stax/Volt), and began issuing a string of idiosyncratic hits that established the funky sound that ruled New Orleans R&B in the '60s and '70s and remains the foundation of much contemporary Crescent City music. But when the New Orleans studio scene collapsed in the '60s, many of the most talented musicians sought work in L.A. and New York, but Toussaint stayed. "It just never dawned on me to consider leaving," he says. "New Orleans is a garden and I'm a plant; I feel so rooted here, there's just no desire to leave for any length of time. There's always a place where you feel you belong; this is it for me."

Much of his writing is for specific artists, an approach he finds more comfortable than writing for himself, which he confesses can be "a problem."

"On Connected I'm doing me as I recognize myself," he explains, "as a pianist who writes songs and sings--whereas other times I wrote songs and sang them, and somewhere else in the arrangement I played the piano part as a sideman. But this one is an obvious piano/vocal album. And I like that, 'cause that's really who I am." CP

NYNO Music, 1290 Sixth Avenue, New York, NY, 10104.

 
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