Pete Johnson’s Blast from My Past: Allen Toussaint “The Bright Mississippi”

Boys and girls, have you lucked into a great record today! I was meandering around this morning trying to think outside of the box and do a more recent record that really excited me and I thought of this. “The Bright Mississippi”, to me, is one of those gems of an album that a great artist can produce later in life. Musicians are never truly ‘done’ until they die, and even then sometimes they have to keep working.

Allen Toussaint, for me is one of the greats of the continuum of music. He comes from the deep New Orleans tradition, really made by Louie Armstrong, Joe Oliver, Sidney Bechet, etc. He had an amazing career as a player, producer, arranger, songwriter and record company man. All the while making generation after generation love him for his spiritual ‘touched by God’ level of musicality. This album is not for kids. No person under the age of 30 will grasp the lifetime of experience that went into making this record. They simply have not had enough time on earth for their ears to able to identify the gamut of feeling that flows on this record. This album was made by Allen out of love. He had no reason to really work again. He is assured legend status and any music he produced at this stage of life could have tarnished and not burnished his legend.

There are many really interesting elements of dichotomy at play here. Toussaint is a genius producer in his own right. Yet he chose Madonna’s brother in-law, Joe Henry to produce this gem. However the hell that happened, it was a great move. I love the sound of this record. If you have ever wandered New Orleans on a humid August night and gone past a bar like Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop and heard the piano coming out, or if you stopped by Preservation Hall and caught a small combo playing this kind of music you will recognize the sights, the sounds, the smells of the Big Easy. You will love the ‘feel’ of this record too. I was so excited the first time I heard this record. I bought it because…well I had to. I did not know if it would be good or bad. I took the chance because it was Allen and he does not do bad music period. I was unprepared though for how much I was going to like this album. I love putting on a record that I know nothing about and almost holding my breath to see at what point do the tunes begin to diminish the musical returns. I remember waiting and waiting for this to happen and it did not. The music is pure heart and class from the first note to the last. Every element is of the highest caliber.

One of the joys of reading the liner notes is seeing that the great Marc Ribot plays guitar on this collection. I love Marc’s playing. It is always tailored to whatever artist he works with and it usually is a reflection of the artist themselves. When Marc Ribot played for Tom Waits he sounded like a reflection of Tom Waits. Angular, ripping caustic and right on point. A very sharp point indeed. Here he sounds relaxed, calm and purposeful. He sounds like he wants to do nothing else but make Allen’s record sound great. Mission accomplished. I had run into Marc a few times when the singer of an early band of mine called Godbox performed with John Zorn’s COBRA, down at the old Knitting Factory on Houston. Her name was Tamela Glenn, and though she has since passed away she really did a lot for me as a guitar player. She introduced me to some really wonderful musical avenues and side streets I never would have found on my own. (Jeff Buckley was one of the vocalists for COBRA too). It was an interesting time in NYC music. It was during this phase of Godbox when we were recording some demos out at Mark Kramer’s Noise NJ studio. They came out pretty good and I was shocked that Tamela had played them for Marc and he responded by asking who the guitar player was and that he liked the songs and solo’s I did. Boy that kept me going for a few years, confidence wise. I really do not think he was just being nice, so it meant a lot.

The other thing I love about this record is the choice of songs by artists such as Sidney Bechet, Joe Oliver, and Thelonious Monk who is responsible for the titular track. Leonard Feather and Duke Ellington also are covered to great affect. This album will stand as one of my top 5 instrumental albums ever recorded. Even though I do miss Allen doing some singing I can understand why he did not. It must have been too much fun for him just to play. This to me is a great example of what the kids today call a ‘mash up’. Only this is a mash up taken from the very best jazz and the very best New Orleans R&B. It is so soulful and stylish it will make you a better person just by listening to this album. Just go out and by this record and play it for your love, or play it at a dinner party, or play it in a traffic jam. You will see it make all things around have a nice warm glow and make the world seem a bit better. If you do not own this record, go out and buy it. It is the best, and you can thank me later. ;o)

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