As one of the foremost purveyors of New Orleans musical culture, Allen Toussaint was an architect of Crescent City funk. But on the brilliant American Tunes, the studio record he completed prior to his death last November, you hear a love of blues, traditional pop, gospel, jazz and more. Sure, there is a glorious New Orleans accent through it all. But American Tunes asserts Toussaint’s role as an Americana journeyman as opposed to that of an ambassador of a single city or sound.
Perhaps the most immediately telling performance reflecting such expansion is Mardi Gras in New Orleans, one of two songs penned by one of Toussaint’s most towering inspirations, pianist Professor Longhair (referred to in the album notes of American Tunes by his birth name of Henry Roeland “Roy” Byrd). The title would suggest carnival music, but the performance is all understated grace — a rolling, reflective melody played patiently with a whiff of the blues and almost orchestral completeness.
Otherwise, this predominantly instrumental collection shifts between solo piano arrangements and combo sessions overseen by producer and longtime Toussaint ally Joe Henry. A gifted composer, Toussaint chose mostly covers for American Tunes by such giants as Duke Ellington, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Bill Evans and Fats Waller. Some of the melodies, like the one beaming out of the Waller classic Confessin’ (That I Love You) are bright, playful and inviting. But Earl King’s Big Chief, a staple of countless New Orleans repertoires, is played straight before sliding into intriguing variations of the tune’s giddy melody.
Toussaint offers two of his own tunes here, the ragtime-leaning Delores’ Boyfriend and a piano duet of his signature song Southern Nights with Van Dyke Parks that is bursting with stately imagery.
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There are only two vocalists on the album. The first is the exquisite Rhiannon Giddens who beautifully compliments two Ellington works. She belts with bluesy, bawdy soul during Rocks in My Head and glides with operatic, spiritual longing on Come Sunday. The other singer is Toussaint himself. His sagely, whispery vocals accent the record’s namesake song, Paul Simon’s American Tune. The performance is a glorious exhale, a weary but proud statement of a true musical pioneer in the final steps of a glorious victory lap.