Allen Toussaint, from “St. James Infirmary” . . .

Nonesuch
Music •••½ Sound •••½
It took Elvis Costello (via the 2006 collaboration The River in Reverse) to remind the world that Allen Toussaint is one of R&B's living treasures, and a man who embodies the soul of New Orleans. But Toussaint hasn't been hiding in recent years; he has produced a batch of local artists for his own NYNO label, writing the lion's share of those releases. And he has explored jazz, but in a personalized way: His 2005 limited release, Going Places (credited to Allen Toussaint's Jazzity Project), was a small-combo session steeped in Meters-style funk, a close cousin to the instrumental tracks on his soulful early-1970s solo albums.

The Bright Mississippi is something else again, and an unlikely candidate for his first major-label-associated solo record in three decades. It's his first acoustic jazz album, his first with no original material, and ("Long, Long Journey" aside) only his second without vocals. The music here is classy, elegant, and swinging - all qualities you'd expect from Toussaint - but it largely manages to leave his own musical history out of the mix. This, after all, is the man whose early songs and productions - Benny Spellman's "Fortune Teller," Ernie K-Doe's "Mother-in-Law," and a host of Meters, Aaron Neville, and Lee Dorsey gems - practically defined New Orleans R&B. Yet The Bright Mississippi concerns itself with 12 standards whose reference points cut off around 1960, when Toussaint's own career began.

Indeed, the warm and nostalgic tone should endear this album to the Starbucks crowd. Sidney Bechet's opening "Egyptian Fantasy" amounts to a New Orleans love letter, with clarinet exclamations and easy-rolling rhythms that paint the city at its sunniest. Still, it would be too easy to write this album off as Easy Listening jazz, even if producer Joe Henry keeps trying to make it sound like that. There are too many subtle surprises in Toussaint's arrangements, which turn Django Reinhardt's "Blue Drag" into a Delta blues and the funeral standard "St. James Infirmary" into a near-celebration.

Most of the tracks are done as dialogues. Clarinetist Don Byron proves the most intuitive match - his take on the hymn "Just a Closer Walk with Thee" is all Sunday-morning joy - but guitarist Marc Ribot displays a lyrical side he has seldom shown before. The only misfire is "Winin' Boy Blues," where guest pianist Brad Meldhau's florid runs are just too far from Jelly Roll Morton's Storyville roots.

So The Bright Mississippi amounts to a fine late-night stretch-out session. Just don't miss the rest of Allen Toussaint's catalog - or, at least, Reprise's essential single-disc Collection - to experience the party beforehand.

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