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Album Review

Allen Toussaint, 'The Bright Mississippi'

May 11, 2009
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Jazz
Allen Toussaint The Bright Mississippi
Nonesuch
ESSENTIAL "Dear Old Southland"

Allen Toussaint's new album couldn't sound more like New Orleans. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame pianist and R&B hitmaker ("Lady Marmalade," "Workin' in a Coal Mine") revisits jazz classics by Duke Ellington, Leonard Feather, Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, Django Reinhardt, and Thelonious Monk and takes them for a stroll through Preservation Hall, imbuing his own funky brand of pop-song charisma. The results are coolly sophisticated, an unfussy, mostly instrumental set of slink-and-slide joints shot through with a harmonic imagination that turns even a traditional hymn into an after-hours swing. Producer Joe Henry recorded Toussaint's band - Don Byron, Nicholas Payton, Marc Ribot, Brad Mehldau, David Piltch, Joshua Redman, and Boston drummer Jay Bellerose - live in the studio, squeezing fresh interaction from the ensemble. Raymond Bloch's "Dear Old Southland" becomes a Dixie montage as Toussaint and trumpeter Payton weave effortlessly in and out of sly "Summertime" motifs. From the Big Easy slither in a re-imagining of Bechet's "Egyptian Fantasy," through the bouncing strut of Monk's title track, to a piano duo with Ribot's acoustic guitar on a gorgeous contemplation of Ellington's "Solitude," Toussaint's musical soul guides all, making the classics sound like his own. (Out now) TRISTRAM LOZAW