Note by Note, Manhattan Acquires a New Orleans Bounce
The New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint hinted at the scope of his musical lore in a whimsical solo montage halfway through his early set at the Village Vanguard on Tuesday night. Fragments of old New Orleans songs (like “Big Chief”), classical pieces, boogie-woogie, “The Sound of Music” and other tunes interrupted one another and gradually mingled, giving barrelhouse flourishes to a Chopin prelude. After a few more segues Mr. Toussaint called Elvis Costello out of the audience to sing “Ascension Day,” a song from the 2006 album they made together, “The River in Reverse.”
No matter what the source, the rendition was poised and light-fingered, without an unconsidered note. And somehow New Orleans was in every phrase, with hints of swing, of humor, of sly sensuality.
In Mr. Toussaint’s long career as songwriter, arranger and producer he has honed a piano style that’s supportive and allusive; a little trill or tremolo sums up all the splashy joys of New Orleans patriarchs like Professor Longhair and James Booker, and a syncopated chord under right-hand octaves summons gospel. Mr. Toussaint has the two-fisted, rippling vocabulary of the city’s piano legacy, but he uses it in dapper ways.
He’s at the Village Vanguard through Sunday primarily as an instrumentalist; he sang only two songs in the set. Mr. Toussaint is following through on his new album, “The Bright Mississippi” (Nonesuch). It applies the Toussaint touch to old songs like “St. James Infirmary” (which was sung on Tuesday night by the album’s producer, Joe Henry), “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” and Duke Ellington’s “Solitude.”
His band echoes a New Orleans trad-jazz lineup — clarinet (Don Byron), trumpet (Christian Scott), acoustic guitar (Marc Ribot), bass (David Piltch) and drums (Jay Bellerose) — and reaches back without being fussy about it. When Mr. Toussaint played and sang his own “Southern Nights,” he turned it into a blend of gospel and Orientalism, with harplike glissandos. But for most of the set blues, slow-drag beats, parade struts and New Orleans-ized tangos and hymns were the foundations, with a touch of rhythm and blues. And melody always took precedence.
Mr. Scott, who has been a sideman on hip-hop albums, reached back to old New Orleans, playing the tunes with puckish pauses and smears; Mr. Byron, sometimes switching to tenor saxophone from his usual clarinet, had the scurrying, ornamental role, sometimes hinting at modernist harmony in his runs. Mr. Ribot’s guitar solos were spiky, down-home epigrams. And Mr. Piltch and Mr. Bellerose savored the vintage New Orleans beats, with rustling cymbals and ballooning snare-drum rolls.
It wasn’t a re-creation of old New Orleans music but a reverie on a New Orleans heritage: a lifetime of memories refined by a genteel sensibility that finds the elegance in the blues.