Allen Toussaint Sings From His Own Songbook

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It used to be that if you lived outside of New Orleans, you were most likely to hear Allen Toussaint’s musical touch on someone else’s album. Countless sides from regal Southern soul singer Irma Thomas, R&B frontmen Lee Dorsey and Ernie K-Doe and rooted funk group the Meters benefited from his writing, production, arranging or playing. On top of that, his song “Southern Nights” gave Glen Campbell his most danceable country hit.

Not that Toussaint didn’t record some classic albums of his own. But he wasn’t one to promote them with a multitude of headlining performances.

As he recuperated in New York City in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he gave audiences new chances to get to know him — first at local listening room Joe’s Pub, then through an album recorded with Elvis Costello that really registered with the Americana audience.

Toussaint’s new live set, Songbook, captures a couple of his 2009 Joe’s Pub solo sets, right down to the between-song patter of a consummate gentleman-showman. The collection received a Grammy nomination for best Americana album.

CMT Edge: You’ve said that as a child you thought it was one and the same pianist playing every kind of music on the radio — classical, R&B, gospel, pop and country. So you tried to play all those styles on the family’s upright piano. What did that do for your musical sensibilities?

Toussaint: Fortunately, it enlarged my scope. It gave me mutual respect for all genres. … I spent much time pursuing it all with equal vitality. I had a wonderful time. And I must say, beyond just playing, it’s good to live with mutual respect for many different genres, as well as it would be [good] living with mutual respect for many different cultures.

Throughout the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, you were working with New Orleans’ R&B tradition against the backdrop of contemporary soul and funk. Did you give much thought to how what you were doing related to the past and the present?

I mostly just lived it without even thinking. Except for the fact that whatever I do is a reflection of all that I’ve seen, heard, smelled, touched and witnessed, in a way. So without it being a cerebral effort every time, I just moved on, feeling secure that whatever I did, it was a reflection of my nourishing ground of New Orleans and all its heritage.

The reason why a company would send an artist to me — and I’m speaking as a producer now — is that they would like to see things happen that get mass approval. … I must say, from time to time, I’ve had to make a conscious effort to scan the scenes of what was most appealing to people. But that was the smallest part of it.

Music fans who are used to the idea that singer-songwriters want to express themselves in the spotlight might not understand your preference for being behind the scenes. What made those roles attractive to you as a young musician?

I’ve always felt a comfort zone in being behind the scenes, and it may have stemmed from very early on when I was learning all of these concepts and genres from the radio. I usually knew all of the songs on the radio. … If [somebody] wanted to sing a song and I was nearby, they could sing it, because I would probably know how to play it if it was something popular at the time.

So I began to be known as one who would back people up. And I felt so good about that that I never, never ever thought about being stage front and center. That was already grooming me to be one behind the scenes, putting things together. I was in a small band, and I was the one who would teach the other gentlemen the parts because I had scrutinized them. I was geared up very young to be behind the scenes.

So when a record company like Minit started, they called me in to be the A&R man, they called it at the time. Ultimately it’s a producer. I started doing that, and it was a natural extrapolation from what I had been doing since a child — putting these things together, writing the songs, putting all the parts together and then teaching it to an artist.

You were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in a nonperformer category and for a long time gave just one live performance a year — at Jazz Fest in New Orleans. As I understand it, it was being displaced by Hurricane Katrina that nudged you toward playing live more. What has stepping out front done to your sense of your musical identity?

Yes, I had been in that zone — almost complacently — in the comfort zone of the studio and writing and arranging. And happily so. And Katrina did launch another life, you might say.

Since I had to migrate from New Orleans to New York for a while, I was away from the studio and that activity … and at a place where there were many things going on. There were benefits being done for New Orleans. … I was called on to do benefits and, of course, I was a “yes” man.

After being in that scene for an extended period, I was called to play at Joe’s Pub for Sunday brunches. I mention that in particular because it became a thing where I did it on a regular basis, one Sunday a month. It really launched a front-stage-center kind of thing. I was doing a solo thing from 12 till 1.

At first, I must say, it was a large world away from what I was accustomed to. Uncomfortable. But I began to mellow into it and then began to dearly appreciate it, and all of what it offered I was able to soak in.

You’re known for your sophisticated ear as an arranger, writing for horns and strings, making it as big of a production as a song calls for. When you’ve stripped that away and played these songs solo on piano, has it changed the way you relate to the songs?

I must say, I always feel a little bit when I’m performing that it would be nice if [the audience] could hear it with the complements. The parts that I wrote behind these songs, I consider them sometimes as important as the song. Being the arranger as well, I always arrange knowing the song so well. So I wrote what I thought was just about vital for that song.

Of course, when I’m presenting them on my own with just the piano, all of that … is not there. That was much more of a problem when I first started doing it at Joe’s Pub. After playing many solo shows here and there, near and far, I have begun to recognize that there may be value in hearing it in such a raw form as the artist heard it the first time I sang it to them.

Songbook also captures your stage patter. “Southern Nights” is a 13-minute track. The story you tell takes the audience to the time, place and people you were channeling when you wrote that song. As a longtime studio producer, what were your initial feelings about including the talking on the album?

Early on, I would’ve shied away from that because I wouldn’t have thought that my presentation was worthy enough to be documented, to be in some permanent frame. But after doing it so many times and seeing how people accepted that, I thought it might be worthy. Someone might want to hear it again later.

Before you start playing the album’s first song, you respond to what sounds like a baby crying in the audience. Was there actually a baby in the crowd at Joe’s Pub?

Oh, yes. There were generations that would be there — grandmothers and sometimes grandfathers and the parents and babies. In fact, there was a lovely couple who came and had twins, and they had little Allen Toussaint shirts on with my picture. And I just thought that was delightful. But most of all, people wanted to bring their children to hear me. That’s one of the highest compliments that I can think of.

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