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Allen Toussaint: The Bright Mississippi

Joel Roberts By

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Pianist, writer, producer and arranger Allen Toussaint can justifiably be called a living legend. A member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he helped define the New Orleans R&B sound of the '60s and '70s through his work with Lee Dorsey, Irma Thomas, The Meters and Dr. John, then went on to collaborate with rock giants like The Band, Paul Simon and Little Feat. He also produced the funk classic "Lady Marmalade" for LaBelle and wrote "Southern Nights," a number one hit for, of all people, Glen Campbell.

Toussaint's first solo effort in more than a decade is a heartfelt tribute to his hometown of New Orleans and the classic jazz on which he grew up. Producer Joe Henry, a jazz-loving rocker who also produced The River in Reverse, Toussaint's 2006 album with Elvis Costello, surrounds Toussaint here with a talented and eclectic crew including guitarist Marc Ribot, clarinetist Don Byron, New Orleans-born trumpeter Nicholas Payton and, from Henry's own band, bassist David Piltch and drummer Jay Bellerose. Pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman also sit in for a track each: the cerebral modernist Mehldau showing his earthier side on Jelly Roll Morton's "Winin' Boy Blues" and Redman offering gorgeous, rough-hewn solos on Ellington-Strayhorn's "Day Dream."

Although he's spent his career in other genres, the 71-year-old Toussaint, an heir to the rollicking New Orleans piano style of Professor Longhair, Fats Domino and others, is clearly at home playing this music. And the rest of the band feeds off Toussaint's laid-back vibe and obvious joy in revisiting the music of his youth. Highlights include Ribot's spot-on acoustic guitar solos on Ellington's "Solitude" and Django Reinhardt's "Blue Drag" and Byron's moving clarinet work on the gospel standard "Just a Closer Walk with Thee." The set's most surprising and memorable number is the title track by Thelonious Monk, which Toussaint and company turn into a strutting New Orleans shuffle.

Track Listing: Egyptian Fantasy; Dear Old Southland; St. James Infirmary; Singin' the Blues; Winin' Boy Blues; West End Blues; Blue Drag; Just a Closer Walk with Thee; Bright Mississippi; Day Dream; Long Long Journey; Solitude.

Personnel: Allen Toussaint: piano, vocals; Don Byron: clarinet; Nicholas Payton: trumpet; Marc Ribot: acoustic guitar; David Piltch: bass; Jay Bellerose: drums and percussion; Brad Mehldau: piano; Joshua Redman: tenor saxophone.

Title: The Bright Mississippi | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: Nonesuch Records

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