Music News & Reviews

Critic's picks: Allen Toussaint, Kermit Ruffins and Marcus Roberts

At the close of the sublime new album The Bright Mississippi, Allen Toussaint steps back from the arena of New Orleans funk that has long been his musical home.

Actually, the entire album embraces a contemplative jazz attitude that the pianist has used more as a seasoning than a main course in the past. But on a finale of Duke Ellington's Solitude, Toussaint teams with guitarist Marc Ribot, a musical journeyman known mostly as a torch bearer of the New York avant-garde. What results, however, is a quiet, elegiac Crescent City serenade for the times. The dialogue is blues in its most elegant form, with a piano voice that glows at every quiet turn.

The rest of the recording offers a more overt instrumental view of New Orleans, as on a playful street parade reading of Sidney Bechet's Egyptian Fantasy with clarinetist Don Byron that nicely summons the composer's joyous spirit.

Toussaint ignores his own works completely on The Bright Mississippi and sings on only one of its 12 tunes, a sage delivery of Leonard Feather's Long, Long Journe). Instead, this latest collaboration with pop songsmith-turned-soul producer Joe Henry invests itself almost exclusively in the stately stride of Toussaint's piano work.

With help from New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who matches Byron's buoyancy, and drummer Jay Bellarose, who provided the Grammy-winning Robert Plant and Alison Krauss album Raising Sand with such a righteous beat, Toussaint internalizes his mammoth New Orleans inspirations. His take on Just a Closer Walk With Thee, for instance, strolls with the purpose and inevitably of the Mississippi River in motion.

Jazz pros Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman provide tasty cameos. But this party belongs to Toussaint. As the album's Thelonious Monk-penned title tune suggests, The Bright Mississippi celebrates a grand musical heritage without overplaying its hand. With artist, producer, band and material all steeped in such exquisite taste, why would it need to?

Two younger generation disciples also have new recordings that mingle jazz with their luminous New Orleans heritage.

Trumpeter Kermit Ruffins' Livin a Treme Life — Treme is one of the Crescent City's most fruitful musical neighborhoods — offers a generous nod to Toussaint by covering the pianist's pop-soul nugget Holy Cow. But Ruffins also honors Horace Silver (the timeless groovefest Song for My Father), Louis Armstrong (Hatty Bolton's Didn't He Ramble) and The Isley Brothers (a pop-gospel reworking of For the Love of You) with ample Southern swing, soul and reverence.

Pianist Marcus Roberts doesn't exactly bust open new ground on New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1. Most of his records seem to favor interpreting works by compositional giants over his own tunes. But his trio still shines with springlike elegance during Fats Waller's Jitterbug Waltz and the strut of Scott Joplin's A Real Slow Drag. Such fraternal musicianship practically makes New Orleans and New York seem like next-door neighbors.