In the wake of the floods triggered by Hurricane Katrina that ravaged his New Orleans homeland, Allen Toussaint moved to New York City. There, the masterful producer, pianist, composer, arranger and singer — whose songs have long been synonymous with Crescent City soul and funk — found a new performance home within the intimate environment of Joe's Pub.
That's where Toussaint fashioned solo programs that relinquished majestic horn and keyboard grooves in favor of unaccompanied piano readings of the sterling pop material that has bolstered his career for over a half-century.
Songbook chronicles two such concerts at Joe's Pub in 2009 when the scars from Katrina were still fresh and deep. Such a time perspective factors little into this recording, though. Toussaint, now 75, approaches this music with resilient dignity. This is no eulogy for a city and heritage in mourning. Songbook is instead a beautiful though understated celebration.
Just as New Orleans fueled the dense, humid funk of Toussaint's 1970s-era recordings, Songbook takes its cue from the New York surroundings at Joe's. The performances of It's Raining, Brickyard Blues and especially Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further are presented with a light, limber tone. Listen closely, though, and you will hear the rich Professor Longhair-style blues and boogie-woogie lines that serve as a powerful undercurrent to the music. Even in the few instances when the songs aren't his own, as in an instrumental reading of St. James Infirmary, the music has an elegant, lyrical soulfulness.
The jaw-dropper is a 12-minute incantatory update of Southern Nights. Long one of Toussaint's most loving remembrances of his Louisiana roots, the Songbook version allows the melody to become long and impressionistic while the lyrics open up into a detailed remembrance of childhood visits to Creole-talking "old folk" in rural outreaches of the state. Those memories recall seemingly primitive household amenities ("outhouses ... I know no New Yorker knows what an outhouse is") and unfamiliar country inhabitants ("chickens strutting around with all their parts intact").
Simply put, this is rapturous and beautifully transportive music as performed by a displaced musical ambassador. Whether they represent New York or New Orleans, the songs of Songbook still sound like they are perched on the front porch forever basking in the sunlight of life.