Feel so good it’s frightening
Wish I could stop this world from fighting
My dad was from New Orleans. My mom wished she was from New Orleans. I’ve never been there. But I was always taught to romanticize it. New Orleans was a myth city of exotic dialects and old buildings with rich histories, the exact alternative to tract house purgatory. Everything New Orleans created was beyond criticism. The best cultural legacy, the best food, the best music. New Orleans rhythm and blues was the only music nobody would complain about having on the stereo. It was celebratory, pure of heart, authentic, and undeniable.
But because we were just ripping off the broad strokes of somebody else’s culture, I didn’t know what New Orleans music actually sounded like. I had a vague notion of pianos, horns and Disneyland, and it stopped there. But I was always looking for it, because whatever it was, it had to be pure joy. The idea was there, a dream construction of the sound, but no music. An itch I couldn’t scratch.
So I just compulsively bought CDs with “New Orleans” on the case somewhere, until years later somebody pushed me toward The Complete ‘Tousan’ Sessions, a collection of Allen Toussaint’s ’50s recordings. And that did it. That was the sound in my head. That was exactly what good time music sounded like. Allen Toussaint was the archetype.
He’s gone now. He died last night in Madrid, in a hotel room after a show. He was 77. He leaves behind an impossible legacy as one of the best songwriters, pianists, and arrangers on the planet, the greatest advocate there was for New Orleans music after Fats Domino.
His music is mathematically incapable of making you feel bad. You can’t despair over an Allen Toussaint song. It just relaxes you. If you need to sit down on a patio and drink beer and watch the leaves blow, you should have an Allen Toussaint record on hand. It will correct a bad day. It will always work.
His legacy as a songwriter and solo performer is beyond peer. His discography is spotless. It never faltered. You can pick up any Allen Toussaint record and your day will get better. But his work as an arranger is equally remarkable. He could take other peoples’ songs and make them sound respectable and gigantic without cheating or artifice. Example: he arranged the horn parts for The Band’s last concert, The Last Waltz. Every song with his horns is made better through his presence. That show’s performance of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is five hundred million times better than the original to a large extent because of Toussaint’s sweeping, heroic horn arrangement.
In 2009, he arranged the horns on two songs for Levon Helm’s last album. “Kingfish” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free.” They are both as good as anything The Band ever did. Anybody else who was arranging the last album of a dying American icon would feel pressured to be somber, moody, or excessively sanctified, but Allen Toussaint put Levon at the front of a parade and ended his recorded career on a note of celebration. It’s the last great example of Allen Toussaint’s power: you could take a song, throw Toussaint at it, and get joy back.
That same year, Toussaint released his own album – The Bright Mississippi. It’s the ideal coda to his career. An assured, carefree run through an hour of jazz and rhythm and blues standards. It’s not trying to prove anything or say anything. It just makes you feel like you’re having a good time in a room with him. It doesn’t try to assert itself. It just sets a mood. You can play it on loop, forever, and never tire of it.
I’m no longer dumb enough to think I know anything about New Orleans, but I know that Allen Toussaint could lift you up, and if I tried to figure out how on earth he did it, that’d crush the magic. I just know Allen Toussaint made a whole bunch of good damn music.
And his complete Warner Bros. recordings: