A powerful bookend to an icon’s work.
Although the album contains material from two periods of recording over the last four years, it is easy to hear Allen Toussaint’s American Tunes as a summation of the R&B and jazz great’s life. Toussaint’s death last November at the age of 77 undoubtedly encourages a reflective mode of listening, but even without context, the work sounds confident and serene.
For the album’s penultimate track, for example, Toussaint revisits one of his most famous songs, “Southern Nights,” almost exactly three decades after its initial release. Toussaint strips away all of the accompanying instruments — the clinking percussions, harpsichord and his heavily filtered voice — instead creating all of the textures with his piano alone. The emotional changes are immediately perceptible: hazy ambiance becomes intimacy, starry-eyed wonder becomes cool contentment.
After a prolific career of recording, arranging and composing, Toussaint can powerfully draw listeners in, bringing joy and emotion from others’ compositions like Louis Mareau Gottschalk’s “Danza, Op. 33” (importantly bolstered by Amy Shulman on harp and Van Dyke Parks’ orchestral arranging) and Roy Byrd’s “Mardi Gras in New Orleans.” Discussing Toussaint’s voice might seem strange, as he sings in only one of the album’s tracks, but his playing directly conveys emotions, textures and scenes that he, in a sense, speaks through it.
Taken from a Paul Simon song that Toussaint performs as the final track, the title — American Tunes — suggests a sense of place and tradition closely tied to the blues and R&B genres. The album’s opening track, “Delores’ Boyfriend,” sets an early standard, allowing Toussaint to show the best of his technical and expressive abilities unaccompanied on the piano. “We come in the age’s most uncertain hour/and sing an American tune,” Toussaint sings in the album’s closer, providing perhaps the best description of American Tunes’ power.