Toussaint was working on this last year, it is now the perfect, elegant swansong (R.I.P.). His fingerprints are all over American music, the New Orleans cauldron of funk and soul and jazz, via his own compositions, productions and collaborations which stretch to include work with and for Dr. John, The Meters, Ernie K-Doe and Lee Dorsey. Beyond that he arranged for Wings and The Band and took his sound to them, a collaboration with Elvis Costello shows the earnestness and stateliness of Toussaint, ever the dapper gent.
He is a legend. You get the feeling that was only made clear in wider circles with the news of his passing. Sad, but often the way. It’s almost impossible to imagine modern American music without him. Fortunately we don’t have to – there was an official release of a 1975 show just earlier this year. There might be more in the can besides that.
And with his final set of performances we hear so much of the magic that was, clearly, always right there in his touch.
American Tunes alternates between solo piano renditions of songbook staples from Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Bill Evans and Toussaint’s own pen – with three tunes from his mentor Professor Longhair – and a set of small-combo tunes with guitarist Bill Frisell, drummer Jay Bellerose and vocalist Rhiannon Giddens. Joe Henry handles the production across both settings.
It’s warm and lovely, this journey through one man’s vision of an American songbook. From Mardi Gras in New Orleans, through Evans’ Waltz for Debby and Longhair’s Big Chief we arrive at an instrumental rendition of Toussaint’s own Southern Nights, its melody shimmering, softly, gently glorious. And then to his lone vocal for this album, Paul Simon’s American Tune. It’s as if he was preparing his own genteel eulogy.
A beautiful soul. And this is a lovely send-off.