A renaissance man of New Orleans music, Allen Toussaint is directly responsible for dozens of iconic songs that helped define the quirky character of Crescent City R&B beginning in the early 1960s. A songwriter, producer, arranger, singer, and formidable pianist in the grand New Orleans tradition, Toussaint has written nuggets including "Java" for Al Hirt, "Working in a Coal Mine" for Lee Dorsey, "Mother-in-Law" for Ernie K-Doe, "I Like It Like That" for Chris Kenner, and "Cissy Strut" for the Meters. When the outside world got hip to him, such artists as Paul McCartney, Labelle, Paul Simon, the Band, and the Pointer Sisters lined up to work with him, while everyone from the Rolling Stones to Glen Campbell and Warren Zevon recorded his songs.
Hurricane Katrina destroyed Toussaint's house and Sea-Saint Studios, but pushed his career in surprising new directions. He collaborated with Elvis Costello for 2006's The River in Reverse, largely inspired by the politics of neglect that amplified Katrina's devastation. And this year, again working with River producer Joe Henry, he issued The Bright Mississippi, a dazzling collection of vintage jazz and blues tunes (by the likes of Ellington, Monk, Reinhardt, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, and King Oliver) strikingly reinterpreted with a virtual dream band: clarinetist Don Byron, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist David Piltch, and drummer Jay Bellerose, plus pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman on one song apiece.
A couple of weeks before heading up the Mississippi with a band to headline this year's Twin Cities Jazz Festival, the ever-gracious Toussaint, 71, reflected by phone from New Orleans about the new album, his life and times, and fresh frontiers.
City Pages: How did The Bright Mississippi come together with these particular songs and these particular musicians?
Toussaint: Joe Henry. Joe Henry. Joe Henry. It was his brainchild from the very beginning. He approached me about producing me, and with my respect for him, I said yes immediately. I was familiar with Joe Henry's work and was flattered that he wanted to produce me. I was really honored that he selected such dignified and wonderful material in this whole other genre.
CP: So your initial response to the project was surprise?
Toussaint: Yes, very much surprise. But trusting him, I did jump into it immediately and began to learn these songs. Some of the songs, I knew they were around but I didn't have occasion to perform them. Like, you would think everyone had played "St. James Infirmary" at some point in their life. But I hadn't. It's such an easygoing song and easy to get to know, so musicians know that whether they've played it or not—because it's been around in all of the walls so much and just in the air.
CP: Especially in New Orleans.
Toussaint: Oh, yes indeed. It's one of our anthems. And things like "Solitude," which is a beautiful song, I had never played that before, but I knew of it. There were other songs like "Egyptian Fantasy" that I had never heard of, "[Dear] Old Southland," "West End Blues." Even the Monk song: I hadn't heard "Bright Mississippi" before, even though I heard that it existed. There were more [songs] that I hadn't heard than what I'd heard.
CP: How did you approach the performance of these songs, then? They seem packed with Toussaint character.
Toussaint: I must say I did as little thinkin' as possible, cause sometimes thinkin' gets you in trouble. So I just started playing to see how it would go. I always assumed that whatever is in me should be present and I should rely on that rather than try to invent something. And [Henry] surrounded me with such marvelous musicians it was inspiring to play with and off of them.
CP: So this is not material you had much history with at all. What did you hear growing up that influenced you?
Toussaint: As a youngster I was listening to whatever was on the radio, and there were things like boogie-woogie, and popular songs, and even a lot of hillbilly music—Red Foley, Jimmy Dickens, Ernest Tubb. On Sundays my mother would play classical radio all day long, so I heard a lot of that. And it all seeped in. I certainly heard a whole lot of Smiley Lewis and, of course, my Bach of rock, Professor Longhair; Cousin Joe and all of the New Orleans people who were recording. And my definite, immediate mentor, Dave Bartholomew.
CP: Hurricane Katrina not only caused widespread devastation, it appeared to jeopardize New Orleans's rich musical heritage. But I understand you've kind of made peace with Katrina.
Toussaint: Oh, yes indeed. Katrina was quite a blessing as well as some curse. Katrina caused us to have to look towards the future and be a part of making it what it is rather than just mosey along and c'est la vie, c'est la vie. So it's an exciting time for New Orleans.
CP: And it seems to be an exciting time for you, with a lot of fresh challenges. A few years ago, did you anticipate you'd be out on the road with a band now?
Toussaint: Before Katrina? No way. No way. I was in the zone that I had been familiar with since I was a teenager: a studio and at home writing and preparing for the next artist. That's been my life. I had no inkling that I would be out doin' what I'm doin', but I must say it's been quite gratifying to do this. It's another life. It's another world.
Toussaint will headline Friday evening's lineup of this year's Twin Cities Jazz Festival, which runs Thursday through Saturday in downtown St. Paul with events in Mears Park, the Artists' Quarter, the Hat Trick Lounge, and many other local clubs. Many of the performances, including those in Mears Park, are free. Preceding Toussaint on Friday will be local sax great Irv Williams and the Terrence Hughes and Phill Fest Quartet, performing its tribute to the late Brazilian pianist, onetime local resident, and Phill's father, Manfredo Fest. Saturday's Mears Park headliner will be the rapidly rising, phenomenally versatile singer, bassist, and composer Esperanza Spalding. Among those playing before her will be the New Standards and young alto saxophonist Alex Han teamed with Chicago piano stalwart Jon Weber. A complete schedule is at www.twincitiesjazzfestival.com.