Allen Toussaint was a national treasure. On what would become his final album, the music is as timeless as the artist. American Tunes (out June 10 on Nonesuch Records) mixes the jazzy stylings of Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Fats Waller, Earl Fatha Hines, and Billy Strayhorn with the carnival/calypso/second line mayhem of Henry Roeland “Roy” Byrd, as well as a stop along the way to gather in a slice of Paul Simon’s musical worldview.
But that doesn’t mean that those compositions are presented as envisioned by their creators. Any similarities to their original form seems to be incidental. The four tunes from the Byrd we all know as Professor Longhair are re-envisioned as dreamy soundcapes with Toussaint hovering over the keys, fingers barely touching the notes. The melodies want to break out and strut and second line, but Toussaint holds them back to a gentle glide.
Even though “Delores’ Boyfriend” is a Toussaint composition, it comes across as variations on Fess’ classic “Tipitina.” The pianist captures Fess’s laconic, syncopated trills, but gives them a classical feel with a bit of stop motion, stopping every few bars for a nanosecond to let the message sink in that while it’s Fess soul, his body has been possessed by another piano deity.
The most startling makeover is on Fess’ rowdy carnival anthem “Mardi Gras in New Orleans.” Toussaint’s is more fit for a New Orleans funeral, elegant and elegiac, to be played on the way to the church, then kicked up into full-bodied strut for the triumphant return from the graveyard.
Fess’ “Hey Little Girl” is smoothed out a tad, but rocks the hardest of all of his renovated works here, the glorious bounce and roll propelling this one.
“Big Chief” is more recognizable as Fess’ Mardi Gras anthem. Written by Earl King and recorded by Fess in ’64, it spotlights the bragging rights of the tribes who make up New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indian Nation and strut their feathered finery in the streets on Mardi Gras Day. Toussaint plays it straight for the first few bars, but then it wanders into serious classical territory before meandering back out on the street for a triumphant strut home.
Rhiannon Giddens guests on a bluesy, take-no-prisoners approach to Duke Ellington’s “Rocks In My Bed.” Giddens belts it out in the style of Ella Fitzgerald — sweet but bold and sassy — on a session cut in Hollywood with pedal steel player Greg Leisz adding a slippery, island touch.
Fats Waller’s version of “Viper’s Drag” is choppy and angular, with Waller punching the keys hard, but Toussaint’s is mellow, creating more ripples than waves.
Paul Simon’s “American Tune” is the most touching selection of the collection.
Toussaint’s soft-spoken demeanor adds a more intimate touch, personalizing the ode to the American experience. “And I dreamed I was dying/I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly/And looking back down at me/Smiled reassuringly.” It’s a fitting epitaph for Toussaint, a gentle goodnight, but thanks to the enduring quality of his music, not a goodbye.