Remembering Allen Toussaint through His Words on Music
I had a brief moment of elation this morning as the voice of Allen Toussaint got my attention on the morning news broadcast on the radio. That elation quickly disappeared when I realized he was in the news because of his unexpected passing following his collapse after a performance in Spain. My thoughts turned immediately to his continually impressive body of work—as a songwriter, a pianist, a producer and a singer. In one of the earliest posts on this site, I wrote about my fondness for his work, including the rare gems found in a then-unreleased live album included on the set The Complete Warner Recordings, a set that featured a sublime version of Toussaint’s “Southern Nights” (made famous by Glen Campbell) and a spirited take on his “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues)”.
The latter song was, as I indicated over ten years ago, a revelation when I saw Toussaint on Night Music back in 1990. His performances of “Brickyard Blues” and “Shoo-Ra” were highlights in an episode that also featured appearances by Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, Bootsy Collins and his protégés Pretty Fat. That is, on a show where the brief might as well have been to be unique and to do things in unconventional ways, Toussaint stole the show not so much by being willfully different as by operating as he always did: as a skilled, seasoned, thoughtful professional.
In that way, and perhaps as all of the obituaries that have already been published indicate, Toussaint has always been something of a musician’s musician: appreciated by other people in the recording industry but not well-known to the general public. His star arguably (and bittersweetly) started to rise after the flooding following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 forced him to relocate. For a while, he was a fixture in New York City, playing at Joe’s Pub and doing high(er) profile work like collaborating with Elvis Costello on The River in Reverse and making an occasional cameo on David Simon’s HBO series Treme.
As powerful as the music is, though, I think there’s a lot to be learned from listening to the way that Toussaint has discussed his work, and I’ll close this post by pointing you toward an interview on the Sodajerker podcast focused mostly on his work as songwriter, another focused more generally on his career, and still another where he appeared and performed (with Elvis Costello) on the late Marian McPartland’s long-running NPR series Piano Jazz. There much more material out there to hear, and for those of you who never knew his work in the present tense or got to see him perform live, the items linked here and elsewhere will let you know how much you missed…