...it seems like something like this would have been done already, right? I mean, the idea is simple: Plop Allen Toussaint down at a piano in front of a lively but appreciative audience and let him loose. The result is positively charming for the casual listener, an invaluable history lesson for the neophyte, and an absolute master class in New Orleans R&B for the dedicated.
Do we really need to go into the backstory? Toussaint is a titan of New Orleans soul/R&B, writing, producing, and arranging a seemingly endless stream of classics hits for way too many artists to list here...his impact on popular music is vast, but much of it bears the name of others. He always seemed content to work in the shadows and let the spotlight shine elsewhere. He was coaxed into a solo career in the late '60s and '70s, as documented by Rhino Handmade's "Complete Warner Recordings" set...
Over the years, Toussaint's own records have been hit-or-miss for me: His voice isn't capable of the grit of someone like Lee Dorsey or the emotional whallop of Irma Thomas (both of whom he wrote and produced some tremendous records for), and sometimes the performances lacked a certain spark. Still, he's such a witty and imaginative writer and absolutely majestic pianist (giving the rollicking syncopation of Professor Longhair a certain regal grace) that he's rarely dull. And in concert, he comes alive -- the '70s-vintage live set on "Complete Warner Recordings" was by far the best part of that package.
This disk features live recordings cut in 2009 during his many solo gigs at Joe's Pub in New York City, where he was residing post-Katrina (he's since returned to New Orleans). His voice just grows in honeyed richness, and the live setting beautifully conveys his generous spirit and relaxed elegance. It's rare to hear Toussaint, usually in such complete control, relax and cut loose, playfully teasing the crowd and sprinkling his playing with all sorts of surprising riffs and runs...
Naturally, most of the repertoire focuses on his classic tunes, and to hear them in this stripped down setting is a delight. Only occasionally does the presentation falter ("Yes We Can Can" feels a bit hurried). More often than not, the great man's warmth, intelligence, and simmering soulfulness shine through bright as day. And his pianism is fleet, nimble, and funky as ever. There's a bit of new material here, too -- all homages to New Orleans, which in less masterful hands would come off as cloying, but here just sound winsome and poetic. The elongated "Southern Nights" is captivating, too, as Toussaint gently accompanies a tender reminissence of childhood days.
So yeah, buy it. The deluxe edition has more songs, and doesn't cost that much more (plus it has a DVD I've yet to watch), so I'd spring for that.
I do have to say that Rounder/Concord really blundered the marketing and presentation of this music. The rather tepid cover -- a studio portrait of a zombie-like Toussaint at a piano -- does not convey the energy and grace of the recordings, nor does it inform the consumer that this is a live disk (you gotta read the back to figure that out). Also, Ace Records released a fine compilation called "Rolling with the Punches: The Allen Toussaint Songbook" a while back...why this disk had to have a near-identical title is beyond me. Hey, Rounder, it's called "Market Research." Google it. Google anything, really...like the titles of your albums before you release them! Lastly, the packaging says that the "Certain Girl" medley contains the tune "Fortune Teller," which is not heard as part of the medley. So maybe the Rounder folks should listen to the music too.
Ok, enough rant...despite the lukewarm attention to detail in the packaging, this is a great disk and is already notching up a considerable number of plays at home and in the office...check it out!