Allen Toussaint (1938-2015), a composer / producer who made his mark in the broad spheres of R&B, rock and roll, funk, country and pop music, may seem at first glance an unusual choice for a big-band jazz tribute. On the other hand, the New Orleans native never strayed far from the pivotal music of his home city, embracing and supporting jazz even as he found other musical worlds to conquer. So when vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater remarked to Adonis Rose, artistic director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, that she'd never heard a big-band treatment of Toussaint's music, Rose took her comment to heart and decided to make it happen.
The result is the buoyant and earthy Songs, on which NOJO, recording for the first time under Rose's baton, explores half a dozen songs written by Toussaint, one more associated with him ("Tequila"), and colorful tribute numbers by Gerald French ("Gert Town") and Leonard Brown ("Zimple Street"). Bridgewater is the orchestra's guest vocalist on "It's Raining" and (alongside Philip Manuel) "With You in Mind." Percussionist French sings on the rhythmic "Gert Town" (named for the neighborhood in which Toussaint grew up), overdubbing himself on vocal and various percussion instruments, accompanied only by Rose on bass drum and NOJO percussionist Alexey Marti on congas. Brown sings and plays trumpet on "Zimple Street," a bluesy cooker on which he fashions one of the album's brightest solos (preceding another strong statement by either Khari Allen Lee or Jeronne Ansari on alto sax).
"Tequila," introduced by The Champs in 1958 and later covered by Toussaint on his album We the People, sounds even better sans voices here, thanks to steadfast blowing by NOJO and crisp solos by (unnamed) tenor sax and trombone. The orchestra does well by Toussaint's themes too, opening in an old-line New Orleans groove on "Southern Nights" (nice vocal by an unbilled Michael Watson who is at least cited in Rose's liner notes) before proceeding to the handsome ballad "It's Raining," on which Bridgewater is in full seductive mode. Edward Petersen's impressive arrangement of "Working in the Coal Mine" showcases alto Ansari with male chorus, the funky, second-line "Ruler of My Heart" the orchestra's splendid resident vocalist, Nayo Jones. The lively, staccato "Java," which earned trumpeter Al Hirt a Grammy Award in 1964, doesn't suffer much from his absence, thanks to unflagging work by the ensemble and Ashlin Parker's nimble trumpet solo.
Even though more or less divorced from his normal realm of influence, Songs is a tribute that Toussaint surely would have loved, as it is New Orleans to the max, astutely designed and adeptly performed by Rose and the rejuvenated New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.
Southern Nights; It’s Raining; Working in the Coal Mine; Ruler of My Heart; Java; Gert Town; With You in Mind; Zimple Street; Tequila.
Adonis Rose: artistic director, drums, cymbals (1, 3, 6, 7, 9); Ashlin Parker: trumpet; Leon Brown: trumpet, vocal (8); Barney Floyd: trumpet; Jonathan Bauer: trumpet; Khari Lee: alto sax; Jeronne Ansari: alto sax; Edward Petersen: tenor sax; Ricardo Pascal: tenor sax; Trevarri Boone: baritone sax; Michael Watson: trombone; Terrance Taplin: trombone; Chris Butcher: trombone; Victor Atkins: piano; Jason Stewart: bass; Gerald Watkins: drums, cymbals (2, 4, 5, 8); Alexey Marti: percussion; Michael Watson: vocal (1); Dee Dee Bridgewater, vocals (2, 7); Nayo Jones: vocal (4); Philip Manuel: vocal (7); Gerald French, vocal, percussion (6). Additional musicians – Aaron Fletcher: alto sax; Roderick Paulin: alto sax; Gregory Agid: alto sax; Jamil Sharif: trumpet; Jeremy Thomas: trumpet; Emily Mikesell: trumpet.
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