Allen Toussaint Interview
Allen Toussaint will be performing at Kuumbwa on February 11
Few musicians are as beloved as songwriter/vocalist/pianist/producer Allen Toussaint. An architect of New Orleans R&B since the 1960s, Toussaint has retained his stature and important role within American music. 2009 brought his highly acclaimed album The Bright Mississippi, marking a high point in his career as a recording artist. These days Toussaint is hitting the stage and tearing it up with his band, and with a deep well of classic tunes such as “Mother-in-Law,” “Southern Nights” and “Working in the Coalmine” to choose from – it will be hard to sit still for this one.
Allen describes the thrill of hearing other musicians perform his songs, working with producer Joe Henry and coming up with rockin’ guitar parts.
Conducted by Bennett Jackson
The last couple times you played Kuumbwa were solo piano dates, but I understand that this upcoming show will be with a full band?
Yes, with a small band, but a band indeed.
Does playing with the band versus a solo piano show influence the set-list you perform?
Oh yes, definitely…it’s always nice to have some company up there and some things don’t rock so well without the band, so those things become optional when I have the band with me. Of course there are some things I do alone that wouldn’t work as well with the band, and they have their place too.
I remember a very evocative solo version of “Southern Nights” that you did at Kuumbwa last time, similar to the original version on your record. It’s so different from Glen Campbell’s arrangement [which was a #1 hit], but his version works equally well. Do you enjoy hearing your material interpreted in a way that’s different from your original approach?
I enjoy [it] tremendously when I hear someone doing another version of a song that I’ve written. Even if it’s very close [to the original] or really far away from it, I really appreciate it all. I usually like everyone else’s rendition better than my own.
In your career as a songwriter, did you ever write a song that you’d hoped a particular artist would record, but they never did?
I’ve written a couple of Professor Longhair-type songs, because even after he had passed on I’d sill write some songs with him in mind and spirit.
When you’re in the studio with artists from across the musical spectrum, from New Orleans luminaries like Professor Longhair or The Nevilles, to rockers such as Elvis Costello, does the studio environment change?
Well everybody’s there to make music, but there is a different vibe from artist to artist. Innately you are always who you are, but by being a producer I’m kind of a chameleon. Whoever is there at that time, whatever is special about them [becomes] most important.
Speaking of production, your last record - 2009’s The Bright Mississippi - was produced by Joe Henry and featured a lot of classic, early jazz and blues tunes. When you were working on it, did it feel different to create an album where you weren’t the principal composer of the material?
Yes, and it was a luxury to have someone else be the sole producer of it all. He chose all these wonderful songs and chose all the musicians and where and when to record. He did everything but play the piano, and that was quite a luxury, I must say. And plus, Joe Henry is such a gentleman producer and lovely to work with.
So on the subject of piano, I heard a radio interview with you recently where you mentioned your guitar playing as well. If I remember correctly they played a Lee Dorsey track that featured you on guitar. Do you pick up the guitar to do any writing these days?
I haven’t picked up the guitar in quite a while…I don’t use the guitar for writing at all. I’m not proficient enough to rely on it when I’m writing, but I do like the guitar very much…I love the feel of the guitar because you get to hold it in your arms.
A lot of your tunes have such great guitar parts. Some of the stuff you did with The Meters, like “Ride Your Pony” have very distinct guitar riffs. Were those riffs created in the studio, or were they something you had composed ahead of time?
To go back back as far as “Ride Your Pony,” [the original] was a little bit before The Meters…that was Roy Montrell on guitar. [sings the riff] that was sort of an embellishment to the bassline…I had those things in mind when I went into the studio and Roy Montrell was a good guitar reader, so I wrote his parts out and he played them very well. But of course when we got to The Meters and had Leo [Nocentelli] on guitar, I didn’t have to write much out all, because I just loved how funky he did it. All he needed was to know the [chord] changes.
So are there any plans for a new record, perhaps a follow-up with Joe Henry?
I am planning to do a recording with Joe Henry within this month. I had a lovely time recording with him and…we have planned a follow-up to River in Reverse[a 2006 collaboration with Elvis Costello] this year.