The Bright Mississippi" />
What a delightful surprise this album is! Toussaint, of course, is well known as a songwriter, producer and arranger, but he’s also made his share of cool solo albums—most notably, Life, Love and Faith from 1972, and Southern Nights from 1975. Nevertheless, this new, mainly instrumental, album has to be considered a departure for him, as it is comprised completely of pieces by other writers; his role is primarily as piano virtuoso and bandleader—two tasks he’s definitely suited for. Producer Joe Henry enlisted some his favorite players (a few of whom are also part of T Bone Burnett’s stable) and it’s a helluva band, with Don Byron (clarinet), Nicholas Payton (trumpet) and Marc Ribot (acoustic guitar) forming the front line with Toussaint, and drummer Jay Bellerose and upright bassist David Piltch as the solid rhythm section. Everyone gets a chance to shine here, as the 12 selections are broken into a series of duets: Toussaint’s piano plus either clarinet, guitar, trumpet, sax (guest Joshua Redman) or second piano (guest Brad Mehldau)—quartets and sextets.
Musically the spotlight is mostly on the bluesy side of very early jazz (tunes popularized by Bechet, Armstrong, Kid Oliver, et al), with forays into other eras (Django, Ellington, Monk, even contemporary jazz critic and songwriter Leonard Feather) in the style of the old masters. The arrangements are loose-limbed and the solos highly improvised within the blues structures, but the playing is hot. A few touches are worth noting: Bellerose’s drumming and percussion work is perfect for this kind of music. On the kit, it seems like he’s all snare, cymbal and rims, but on a number of tunes, his rhythmic accompaniment is dominated by the soft slush of shakers (which he also employs frequently in his work with T Bone), adding to the casual feel of the interplay. I also love the way engineer Kevin Killen has mixed the duets, with Toussaint’s extraordinary piano work—with its rolling figures, adventurous rhythm shifts and bright melodies—spread fully across the stereo spectrum, while his duet partner is firmly in middle, enveloped by Toussaint’s lines. Toussaint (and his partners) also get some solo space in the duets, and each achieves some wondrous heights. Mehldau is such a great player, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that he plays bluesy jazz so well (on Jelly Roll Morton’s “Winin’ Boy Blues”). It’s also quite a revelation to hear Ribot play acoustic guitar exclusively.
Feather’s “Long, Long Journey” features Toussaint’s only vocal on the album, and like the singer himself, it is both elegant and soulful. But every track is a winner. It’s a marvelous trip to another time and space, yet the improvisation is so fresh and immediate that it also feels like it’s from right now—and right in your living room.
For more on the recording of The Bright Mississippi, look for Chris Walker’s article in the June 2009 issue of Mix.
Must Play: “Egyptian Fantasy,” “Winin’Boy Blues”
Producer: Joe Henry. Engineer/mixer: Kevin Killen. Studios: Avatar (tracking) and Sevonay Sound (tracking and mixing), both in New York City.