Allen Toussaint ‘American Tunes’ (Nonesuch) 3/5

allen-toussaintThis late New Orleans virtuoso had a CV with such a variety that sadly this feels less of an album, in an artistic sense, than a hasty wrap-up. By no means does this make it a poor record, but certainly gives the sense of a collection of tunes from several sessions than anything with a specific scope, message or concept.
The central thread is Toussaint’s exacting virtuosity on the piano. The net is dragged wide for style and sensibility, seemingly able to inhabit any musical form he attempted, evident here. The opening track, by Toussaint, “Delores’ Boyfriend” is a charming ragtime, followed by Fats Waller’s “Viper’s Drag”, with its sassy Broadway menace. I was settled in to what I felt was a well observed collection of tunes full of American life, stemming from a New Orleans R&B root. Slowly, however, my interest faded as the content became rather less direct, spilling into the mawkish and over-sentimental in a way that stopped my enjoyment. This is not due to the source material, which is from a wide mix of luminaries, but in the execution.
The musicians playing along with Toussaint are very much just a backdrop, save for a few moments of soloing, and vocals on two tracks, which only further waylay the record on muddier roads. The effect of working up half of the tracks simply distracted me, and the endeavour had failed to hold my attention by the end, not helped by a rather laboured cover of Paul Simon’s “American Tune”. This was even despite superb re-workings of Professor Longhair’s “Big Chief” (which mutates genres beautifully) and Gottschalks “Danza, Op. 33” (well crafted American romanticism reworked into what could well be a perfect ’70’s TV drama theme). Toussaint seems to shine at this certain refined approach, and when it hits, it hits in a surprising and satisfying way. It seems a shame that there wasn’t more slip and sleaze to some of the tracks. For example, Ellington’s classic lust-o-thon “Rocks In My Bed” comes off feeling rather more embarrassingly middle-aged than sexy.

The production, however, is impeccable. Recorded in Toussaint’s own studios, there is space and clarity by the bucket-load, if at the sacrifice of a bit of “live” bite. This is probably to the benefit of displaying the dynamic range and ability on display in his piano playing.

Ultimately, this is a fine collection of well-known classics presented solidly and unpretentiously, but perhaps a bit safely and unimaginatively from a production and arrangement standpoint. This is, however, a perfect primer for listeners new to Toussaint, and with further investigation, those who enjoyed this may find his other achievements and credits a pleasant surprise.

Thomas Pooley-Tolkien-Sharpe