Allen Toussaint and Preservation Hall Jazz Orchestra in London
June 4th, 2007
They say it is an ill wind that blows no-one any good. Well, Hurricane Katrina was certainly one of the illest winds ever to blow through New Orleans, leaving the city ruined and many thousands homeless. Allen Toussaint is one of those homeless, and is currently residing in New York City while his house is rebuilt. As for the good, Toussaint's fans in London have definitely benefited from his enforced exile; this was the second time in eight months he has played here. Last November, he played to an enthusiastic crowd at the packed Jazz Café. The Barbican is far bigger and less intimate, but Toussaint was just as warmly welcomed.
The man is a human jukebox, effortlessly reeling off hit after hit"A Certain Girl," "Fortune Teller," "Mother-in-Law," "Lipstick Traces", "Working in the Coal Mine" all of which he wrote, produced and played piano on, adding anecdotes about his role in their creation. Toussaint's voice is adequate to carry a tune, but when his trademark piano is added alongside his skills as a raconteur, he's a compelling performer.
Toussaint shared the evening with another New Orleans institution, the Preservation Hall Jazz Orchestra (although, thankfully, it still says "Band not "Orchestra on the bass drum!). Seeing this version of the band brought to mind the old conundrum about my grandfather's axewhich has had two new heads and three new shafts since his day: is it still my grandfather's axe? As the original members of the band have died off (often well into their 80's or 90's) younger members have replaced them. As with the axe, there is a fine distinction between preservation and re-creation, and with this band it felt as if we were seeing a reconstruction of history more than its authentic preservation, a sort of theme-park reinvention of history. A brief film of the band's glorious pastincluding plenty of archival footageshown before their set, only served to emphasize this contrast between past and present. But I suspect that mine was a minority view, given the rousing reception the band received.
In contrast, Toussaint is undoubtedly the real dealliving history. And he seems to know it, being happy to indulge in storytelling both musical and verbal. The two highlights of his set fell into this category. He played a free-flowing musical montage of his roots and influences ("this is where I come from ), incorporating snatches of practice exercises, classical pieces, familiar melodies and, most importantly, large chunks of the New Orleans piano style pioneered by his mentor Professor Longhair. Tousssaint alone could have played such piano all night and kept the audience spellbound.
The other highlight closed the set, a prolonged version of his classic "Southern Night, beginning with an extended spoken prologue (which had grown considerably since last autumn at the Jazz Café) about his childhood visits to relatives out in rural Louisiana. Toussaint painted vivid word pictures for us and, again, we could have listened to him all night. He left the stage to prolonged applause and a flock of fans wanting to shake his hand. Now I can't believe our good fortune that he's due to return again later in the year, accompanied by his band. Can't wait.