If you don’t recognize the significance of the Blues on today’s music, you’re a few pieces short from the puzzle. I admit, I was a stubborn teenager. I didn’t get the Blues (which is not a good thing as a guitar player). These guys manage to pick up the same chords, same structures, and same notes, and recycle it. And recycle it. I felt like I’d heard it all before. That’s… not exactly wrong from a classical perspective, but it omits a key element: the human feel. Blues is about more than the notes on the paper. The structure of the Blues opens the door to freedom of improvisation and expression. Blues is easy to play, but hard to feel. You won’t find anything more raw, natural, and transparent than the New Orleans sound. Enter Allen Toussaint, a man who’s career helped shaped the sound of New Orleans. And this one hits deep.
It might be fair to give Allen Toussaint a bit more of an introduction. In a way, Allen is the Bob Dylan of the New Orleans music scene: you may not necessarily know his name, but his songs have been covered by the likes of The Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, The Who, Aaron Neville, and even Devo! I feel Allen is blessed with a remarkable sense of vision. Some people just have an ear for melody and a good tune. The Bright Mississippi is a comeback album of sorts for Allen. I actually listened to a fair bit of Toussaint’s work this week, but this album caught me more than the albums of his heyday in the 70’s. While his earlier work (which I’d also highly recommend. Start with Life, Love, and Faith) introduced more pop and R&B elements, The Bright Mississippi is a mostly instrumental musician’s album.
Let me make a distinction before I come off as hypocritical. It was for this same reason that I was critical during my review of Passion and Warfare by Steve Vai: instrumental music can lack the pull and captivation that’s so compelling with a good vocal performance. In this context, The Bright Mississippi does not suffer from the lack of vocals. The story is told through the instruments. These are musicians who’s tools are extensions of themselves. I feel like I understand Allen as a person through his playing as much as I would if he was vocally presenting his ideas. The piano is a wonderfully dynamic tool. The cadences and intricacies of the playing are incredibly consistent, and at the same time, ask Allen to play the same song twice, and you’ll hear two different versions. That’s not for lack of comprehension. It’d be like asking an artist to paint the same picture twice. Sure, a good one might be able to recreate it stroke for stroke, but why would you want to?
The Bright Mississippi features an incredible ensemble. This album does not suffer from lack of musicianship. Allen’s piano work isn’t to be understated, but the Clarinet work in Egyptian Fantasy is phenomenal, and there’s a guitar solo on West End Blues that is so loose with the song’s timing that it’s something to behold. This is more than a breath of fresh air. When I’m listening to this album, I want to forget that click tracks and metronomes are a thing. Yet the songs don’t waver. One incredible musician can play with the timing of a song, stretching it and squishing it at will without sacrificing the feel and rhythm of the song. But put together a band that’s on the same page, and it’s a treat!
Once in a while, musician’s can tend to feel as if they’re stuck in a rut. That is, all of your ideas are stale. You’re coming up with the same ideas and licks, nothing feels original, and it lacks all flair and style. I don’t get the sense these men are hampered by that. How can you be when you have so many stories to tell? Sure, not one song on The Bright Mississippi is an original composition. But I challenge you to listen to Thelonius Monk’s original version of the title track, and other than the melody line, you’ll hear two different songs. That’s the core understanding I walked away with from this experience. The Blues can be happy. It can be sad. It can stand still, and it can take you places. There’s not enough New Orleans in me to even attempt to improvise over these songs. When you listen to these songs, you’re hearing more of the people than the music.
And that’s why I loved The Bright Mississippi. The title track at a glance represents the whole album. The Blues is fun. Let it move you. Once you get into the vibe of the song and start tapping your foot and bobbing your head, you’ll start to understand the genius of Allen Toussaint. The man knows how to move people. There’s a quality of openness and vulnerability that only the Blues can allow. Allen can draw from the old, from the new, from the jazzier side, or from the poppier side, and it all works. It works because it’s genuine. To look at these 12 tracks as static compositions is to deny the musicians of their emotions. Fortunately, The Bright Mississippi covers its fair share of ground, and encapsulates a lifetime of experience in brief bouts of energy. It’s intoxicating!