Toussaint steps to the fore for Jazz Aspen fundraiser
July 20, 2006
Allen Toussaint’s position last month at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Festival was simultaneously familiar and out of the ordinary. As is his custom, Toussaint was in a supporting role, playing along with Elvis Costello & the Imposters. But Toussaint, listed as a special guest, had his name at the top of the bill; his piano was situated at the front of the stage. Costello hits like “Alison” and “Watching the Detectives” were interspersed with Toussaint singing his own songs, and playing the likes of “Big Chief,” a signature piano tune from his hometown of New Orleans.Toussaint is accustomed to being the figure somewhat behind the curtain in the collaborative effort that results in great music. The New Orleans native has been a producer for Lee Dorsey; for Dr. John’s most successful albums, including “In the Right Place”; for Patti Labelle, both with the Bluebelles and solo; and perhaps most momentously, for the Meters, the quintessential and enormously influential New Orleans funk group.”I don’t think of myself as an artist upfront at all,” said the 68-year-old Toussaint, whose soft, thoughtful manner bespeaks not only the back-seat musical guru, but also the classic Southern gentleman. “My whole thought process has been how to record other artists, not myself. My normal thought of who or what I am is to be the producer or the songwriter. What I expect an artist to be, to live and breathe front and center, I’ve never seen myself that way.”On occasion, however, the request has been made for Toussaint to step into the spotlight, and he has not hesitated to accede. He has periodically made albums under his own name, and appeared as a headline act. In his return to Aspen, Toussaint will have the stage to himself, leading his band – including the Crescent City Horns, who appeared at the Elvis Costello show last month – to an appearance at Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ benefit event, CrescentCitySwing, Saturday, July 22, at Aspen Highlands. Also on the bill is the Soul Rebels, a New Orleans brass band. The event is a fundraiser for Jazz Aspen’s education programs.
The recent association with Costello has not only put Toussaint as much in the public eye as he has ever been, it has also allowed him to explore another niche in his favorite process, collaboration.Costello and Toussaint first met in the early 1980s, when Costello, commissioned to do a Yoko Ono tune, called Toussaint, out of the blue, to work with him on a cover of “Walking On Thin Ice.” “He thought it would be a good idea to do it in New Orleans,” said Toussaint, “with me, at Sea-Saint,” Toussaint’s long-standing studio in New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood. In 1989, Toussaint added piano to Costello’s “Spike” album.Last year, the two were reacquainted in New York, where Toussaint had relocated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The pair appeared together at several benefit concerts and club gigs, and the reunion led swiftly to talk of a full-album collaboration. Last month, “The River in Reverse,” a socially conscious, often-outspoken and very soulful album, credited to Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint, was released on the Verve Forecast label.”The River in Reverse” is unusual in its structure. The title track, which sparked the album, was written by Costello alone. Costello and Toussaint co-wrote a handful of songs. The bulk of the album, however, is made up of old Toussaint songs handpicked by Costello. Those songs were re-recorded, usually with Costello on lead vocals and Toussaint on piano. Producing the album was avant-rocker Joe Henry.”I didn’t produce Elvis Costello the way I would produce Dr. John or Patti Labelle,” said Toussaint, by phone from his hotel room in New Orleans. “Elvis chose most of the songs, and presented them to me. Normally, in the production, I choose most of the songs. This was a rare case, for me to write songs and with someone else arranging them, then collaborating on how they would sound.”
Toussaint says he enjoyed the process “immensely,” and largely because of the novel way of working together. “For one thing, it’s a real collaboration. In this case, it was us. It was not Elvis or me,” he said. “I’d come up with a piano idea, a musical idea, and the next day he’d come up with the story line, the melodic line, the musical progression.”Toussaint was also taken by Costello’s enthusiasm, work ethic and natural musicality. “He’s so prolific and so energetic and so wide-awake,” said Toussaint, who played some 20 dates with Costello this summer. “He seizes the moment – of everything. He seizes immediately, where other people will let things go by. He notices every temperature change. He sees the potential in oak seeds, that they will become oak trees, and works toward that diligently.” Toussaint’s disposition seems suited to being the producer, arranger and composer, the music-maker behind the star. But he says his customary place in the musical process also came from his early abilities. As a teenager in the Gertown section of New Orleans, Toussaint was an avid radio listener, and would translate what he heard – classical, and what he calls “boogie,” “hillbilly” and “legitimate songs” – onto his own piano.
“My life seemed to lead me in that direction,” he says of his role as producer. “The singers all saw me as the guy who probably knew the song they wanted to play. That led me toward the position of accompanying and that led to producing and arranging. I hadn’t thought of myself as the person upfront, I was having such a good time doing that.”Getting his music off the radio, Toussaint was not able to distinguish between the music that came from his hometown and that which originated farther away. But the sound that most made his ears stand up came from just across New Orleans – Professor Longhair playing the piano. “That was further off the beaten path than anything I’d ever heard,” he said. Professor Longhair led Toussaint to join the parade of great New Orleans pianists and keyboardists: James Booker, Ellis Marsalis, Fats Domino, and Dr. John, who as a teenager played guitar on sessions that included Toussaint on piano.”New Orleans turned out so many piano players because we’ve stayed acoustic longer than the others,” said Toussaint of the abundance of New Orleans pianists. “Other places went amplified; the amps got turned up so big, and pianos were never geared to be such. When other areas had these large amps, we had these tiny guitar amps. Even the bass, we stayed with upright bass. And piano is the king of that acoustic sound.”But Toussaint is no acoustic music purist. In 1965, walking on Bourbon Street, he heard a sound that grabbed his soul. It was Art Neville & the Neville Sounds, led by organist Neville.”I heard this funky music. I never heard anything like it,” said Toussaint. “I said, Art Neville has done it again. “He is magic. If he put something new together today, there’d be a new sound on the planet in a month.”
Toussaint asked Neville to meet with him and his partner, Marshall Sehorn, about recording. Neville agreed and even agreed to take his own name off the band, in favor of the name, the Meters. Toussaint brought the group into his studio for what had to be one of his easiest producing gigs ever.”My job as a producer was not what it usually is,” he said. “All I had to do was open the doors and make sure they got in. That’s all I had to do.”Toussaint has gone on to be one of the great architects of music. He wrote hit songs for Irma Thomas and Otis Redding; Glen Campbell landed at the top of the charts with Toussaint’s “Southern Nights.” Toussaint arranged horns for the Band and Paul Simon, and had two of his songs covered by the Jerry Garcia Band. In 1998, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.Toussaint is enjoying his rare moment at center stage, performing with Costello and earning attention for “The River in Reverse.””I must say I’ve had a good time,” he said. “Because the ultimate intention is to reach people. That instant gratification is extremely gratifying. It’s a communication about life. The studio doesn’t give you that feedback.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com