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Allen Toussaint – American Tunes

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As the Great Baby Boomer Icon Death March pushes on, there has been much cause for reflection, especially for rock critics of a certain age for whom the loss of protean pop stars like Prince and Bowie – and they were just the tip of the iceberg – isn’t only distressing for the usual reason. Yes, we’re sad our heroes are gone, that the artists who conjured the soundtrack to all the magical, awful, surreal and urgent moments of our lives are forever now in the Pantheon, never to visit us again in the mortal flesh. But it’s also a reminder that, holy crap, time is flying by and even giants aren’t bulletproof. What chance do we have?

Beyond that, though, is the sense of loss owed to unfinished business. To take those two most prominent examples, both performers had deep reserves of creativity that might have seeded masterpieces to come. What if they’d had another decade or two?

Such thoughts come to mind spinning the new album from Allen Toussaint. The New Orleans piano master died in November at age 77, struck by a heart attack while touring in Spain. He didn’t die onstage, said to be the preferred way to go for any true Crescent City musician, but he was out on the road – a place that had beckoned him more compellingly in the decade since Hurricane Katrina made him, for a time, a refugee from his own home.

Long before 2005, Toussaint already had an immense body of work behind him, penning R&B classics, novelty tunes and Top 10 hits that included “Lady Marmalade,” “Southern Nights,” “Working in a Coal Mine,” “Java,” “Fortune Teller,” “What Do You Want the Girl to Do?” and jukeboxes full of endless others, a common source for Herb Alpert, Devo, the Rolling Stones and Glen Campbell alike. But after his home and studio flooded and he resettled in New York City for a time, taking up a residency at Joe’s Pub, he enjoyed an unexpected renaissance as a performer.

“American Tune” is the third of Toussaint’s post-Katrina projects, which include his collaboration with Elvis Costello, The River in Reverse. The new album is a follow-up to Bright Mississippi, a more jazz-inflected effort also produced by Joe Henry, who in recent years has become a kind of late-career studio rejuvenator for quite a few worthy artists. I think of him as the non-lame Don Was.

The beauty of this song cycle is its slippery ease. Toussaint always radiated elegance, sophistication and a gracious humility, and you feel those qualities in his piano playing. He draws on the legacy of a century of New Orleans piano wizards, sublimating Professor Longhair, James Booker and others into his own more refined sound. American Tunes reprises a fair amount of classic material across a broad chronological spectrum of jazz, pop, classical and R&B, all knitted together by the musician’s supple-as-cream touch on the black-and-whites, from “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” and “Big Chief” to “Viper’s Drag” and “Waltz for Debby.” The recording really emphasizes Toussaint as a player/interpreter/entertainer, which feels entirely fitting. Despite all the famous special guests on hand, including heavy jazzbos like Charles Lloyd and Bill Frisell, ex-Carolina Chocolate Dropper Rhiannon Giddens and fellow genius Van Dyke Parks, the production somehow frames it all with the intimate vibe of a solo piano recital, one just occasionally accented.

After communing with Fats and Duke and Fess for the better part of an hour, Toussaint closes the album with his own voice, and a perfectly unfussy take on Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” The song unfurls itself so smoothly you hardly know it’s happening, and then it gently gathers up into a benediction, melancholy giving way to sweetness, a grace note amid all the insanity.