Monday, June 27, 2016

American Tunes: Allen Toussaint and Paul Simon

Allen Toussaint – American Tunes (Nonesuch)

This week we lost 72-year-old Bernie Worrell, the synth wizard of Funkadelic and Talking Heads and session player on hundreds of recordings (and sampled on hundreds more hip-hop records), who redefined the keyboard’s role in R&B and funk and pop. A few months ago we lost Keith Emerson, 71, who redefined the role of piano, organ and synth in jazzy and bombastic rock music. And a few months before that, we lost Allen Toussaint, 77, the man who almost single-handedly introduced the unique New Orleans sound into rock and soul music, midwifing recordings by Lee Dorsey, the Meters, Labelle, The Band and Dr. John. It’s been a horrible 12 months for keyboard heroes. Hey, Herbie Hancock: hope you’re feeling okay.

This is the final recording by Toussaint, who, in the last decade of his life, was making lovely, simply adorned records that took leisurely strolls through his legacy. This one is no different, walking through a century of American music by composers such as Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Bill Evans, Earl King, Professor Longhair, Fats Waller and more, including Toussaint’s own compositions (including his hit for Glen Campbell, “Southern Nights”) and the title song, by Paul Simon. That song, the last one recorded for the album—a month before Toussaint’s death of a heart attack following a performance in Madrid—contains these lyrics: “And I dreamed I was dying /
And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly /
And looking back down at me
/ Smiled reassuringly.”

Produced by Joe Henry, who also helmed 2009’s The Bright Mississippi, American Tunes features the sympathetic rhythm section of drummer Jay Bellerose and Toronto bassist David Piltch, with guest spots from Bill Frisell, Greg Liesz, and vocalist Rhiannon Giddens. Toussaint’s reputation as a producer, arranger and songwriter often overshadowed just what a brilliant piano player he is: here he displays a magical touch that ranges from classical flourish to swinging jazz to boogie-woogie, all delivered with elegance. I thought I knew everything Toussaint could deliver until I heard him dive into a 19th-century composition by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who was born in New Orleans but spent most of his life in the Caribbean and South America. Surprising us right until the end. (June 30)

Stream: “Big Chief,” “Danza, Op. 33,” “Dolores’ Boyfriend”

Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger (Universal)

“Stranger to stranger / if we met for the first time / this time, could you imagine us falling in love again?” It’s hard to imagine anyone hearing Paul Simon for the first time in 2016, anyone not coming to a new Paul Simon record without some kind of preconceived idea. But I’m willing to bet that if they did, they’d be just as beguiled as someone hearing any of the iconic songs or albums that have made him such an enormous part of American music in the last half-century. “Certain melodies tear your soul apart,” he sings—and he should know.

Here, we find Simon once again delving into rhythms from Africa, South America and New Orleans, gospel harmonies, electronics (many lessons learned from his 2006 collaboration with Brian Eno, Surprise), and melodic remnants of his ’70s prime, all the while playing the role of the slightly bewildered and flustered Baby Boomer poet laureate adrift in the modern world. Only Paul Simon could write a song about being denied backstage access (“Wristband”) and make it funny and a metaphor for economic stratification rather than merely the precious complaints of a rock star. Simon often suffers when he suffocates from his own seriousness; he does not have that problem on this joyous and spritely album, on which he sings: “I make my verse for the universe / I write my rhymes for the universities / I give it away for the hoot of it / I tell my tale for the toot of it.”

The best three tracks are cross-generational collaborations with Italian DJ Clap! Clap! (who came recommended by Simon’s 23-year-old son), though everything else is produced by longtime guiding light Roy Halee, who’s worked on almost everything Simon has ever done, dating back to Simon & Garfunkel’s first record in 1964. Halee is now 81, and apparently had to be instructed on ProTools to record this album (seriously, what took him so long, and why now?); the modern sound of Stranger to Stranger more than proves why Halee has been the ideal midwife for Simon’s vision since day one. (June 2)

Stream: “The Werewolf,” “Wristband,” “Stranger to Stranger”

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