Review: Allen Toussaint's 'American Tunes' is elegant adieu

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Posted: Jun 15, 2016 3:47 PM
Review: Allen Toussaint's 'American Tunes' is elegant adieu

Allen Toussaint, "American Tunes" (Nonesuch)

Allen Toussaint finished recording "American Tunes" just weeks before his death in November, an elegant and fitting adieu from the New Orleans master.

Solo piano versions of tunes from the Professor Longhair canon like "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" and "Hey Little Girl" sand down the edges without sacrificing passion and Toussaint shows how deeply rooted he was in that tradition which he both inherited and expanded.

Accompanied by the likes of saxophonist Charles Lloyd and guitarist Bill Frisell, Toussaint also hits the mark with fresh interpretations of compositions by the likes of Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Billy Strayhorn and Fats Waller.

Rhiannon Giddens adds stately vocals to a pair of Ellington tracks while Van Dyke Parks' piano skills help Toussaint turn his own "Southern Nights" into something Hoagy Carmichael could have played for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall on "To Have and Have Not."

On "Waltz for Debby," Toussaint, bassist David Piltch and drummer Jay Bellerose replace Bill Evans' oom-pah-pah tempo with some Latin grooves — put it on "repeat" and you won't stop smiling.

The album closes with Paul Simon's title track, the last song of the sessions and Toussaint's only vocal. Knowing it's a farewell, every line gains poignancy — from "I'm just weary to my bones" to "And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly" — even as his singing remains suitably understated.

Toussaint makes a fine final impression on "American Tunes," a repertoire as rich as his own contributions to music over a nearly 60-year career.