Composer-pianist Allen Toussaint invented New Orleans rhythm-and-blues as much as anyone on the planet with his homespun songwriting, arranging and overall studio wizardry from the late 1950s onward — and true to the spirit of his Crescent City, it was expertise laced with amiability. Flooded out from his home by Hurricane Katrina, Toussaint relocated to New York City and began a regular gig at Joe’s Pub, which is where Songbook was recorded over two nights in 2009. The album captures the charm and sporadic magic of this odd interlude; Toussaint at 71 playing a well-honed nightclub show in a bare-bones setting, a transplanted producer with just his voice, his piano and his long and durable catalog of tunes.
Toussaint’s dignified yet unpretentious personal style extends to his music. Crooning, melisma and smooth shifts in rhythm are deployed sparingly but to maximum effect in his vocals, so that even the quasi-novelty tunes he turned into hits with Lee Dorsey nearly 50 years ago (“Holy Cow,” “Working In A Coal Mine”) don’t clash with his versions of poignant ballads he minted for Irma Thomas (“It’s Raining”), Etta James (“With You In Mind”) and Esther Phillips (“Sweet Touch of Love”). And his piano work — a silkier variation on Professor Longhair’s second-line style — epitomizes New Orleans funk-and-roll, especially on a glorious medley of “Certain Girl,” “Mother-in-Law,” “Fortune Teller” and “Working in a Coal Mine,” and his instrumental take on the classic “St. James Infirmary.”
Perhaps the best thing about Songbook is that it reminds us of the breadth of Toussaint’s talented contributions while also revealing new facets of his artistry. Few would think to list “Freedom for the Stallion” among his top handful of songs, and yet this riveting protest anthem disguised as a psalm, which inspired Bob Dylan, deserves to be exalted. And it is easy to forget that a song like “Yes We Can,” a sassy hit for the Pointer Sisters, came from Toussaint’s pen. Then there is the bonus of Songbook, which is Toussaint cast as intimate singer-songwriter, climaxed by his wonderful boyhood reveries enclosed in the heart of his 13-minute rendition of “Southern Nights” to close the disc. Toussaint is now back in New Orleans, where he belongs. But Songbook documents that he turned his unfortunate need to vacate his beloved city into an artistic tonic.