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Jazz Legend Allen Toussaint's Touch And Timing Shine On His Last Record

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. New Orleans pianist, singer, songwriter, arranger and producer Allen Toussaint died suddenly last November at age 77, the month before he completed recording the second album he made with producer Joe Henry. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says he likes the sequel better than the original.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT SONG, "VIPER'S DRAG")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Allen Toussaint New Orleans-ifying (ph) Fats Waller's "Viper's Drag," from the pianist's final album, "American Tunes." It's a belated sequel to "The Bright Mississippi," also produced by Joe Henry, which placed Toussaint among musicians from way outside his circle.

On that one, the lack of a New Orleans drummer seemed to tie one hand behind Toussaint's back. And a Dixieland-y (ph) band made some hip musicians sound corny. The second pass at the concept has its bumps but works better.

Guests like Bill Frisell and Charles Lloyd are less intrusive. And returning Los Angeles drummer Jay Bellerose and bassist David Piltch sound more at ease.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT SONG, "ROSETTA")

WHITEHEAD: Earl Hines's tune "Rosetta," from Allen Toussaint's "American Tunes." As on "The Bright Mississippi," the repertoire is meant to connect the New Orleans great with broader American traditions. He could be charming and funny and so could Fats Waller, so why not do "Viper's Drag?"

There are tunes by fellow pianists Billy Strayhorn and Bill Evans, a couple of Professor Longhair Crescent City standards and an 1850s dance by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the New Orleans composer who brought Cuban syncopations to American sheet music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT SONG)

WHITEHEAD: That harp and cello suite and the second piano part are by arranger Van Dyke Parks. He also joins the leader on a two-piano version of the only Toussaint standard on the program.

One highlight of Allen Toussaint's late period "Songbook" concerts, in which he warmly thanked stars who made his songs hits, was the way he reclaimed his misterioso tune "Southern Nights" from the memory of Glen Campbell's polka version. The blur of two pianos is like an evening mist descending over the melody.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT SONG, "SOUTHERN NIGHTS")

WHITEHEAD: On Allen Toussaint's final album, Carolina Chocolate Drop Rhiannon Giddens drops by to sing Duke Ellington's "Rocks In My Bed" and "Come Sunday." Allen Toussaint's only vocal is on Paul Simon's "American Tune," where producer Joe Henry does something I'd never have seen coming. He makes Toussaint sound like '70s crooner Cat Stevens.

SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN TUNE"

ALLEN TOUSSAINT: (Singing) Oh, but I'm all right. I'm all right. I'm just weary to my bones. Still, you don't expect to be bright and bon vivant so far away from home - so far away from home.

WHITEHEAD: On his valedictory album "American Tunes," Allen Toussaint also plays four pieces solo, so we can better appreciate his touch and timing at the keys and how deeply steeped he was in the rolling New Orleans piano tradition epitomized by Professor Longhair.

The record's a fond last look at a composer and pianist who helped refine classic New Orleans pop and rhythm and blues and then brought them into the modern era. We miss him already.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and TONEAudio and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "American Tunes," the final album by the New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint, who died last November.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be actor Matt Ross. On "Silicon Valley," he plays the head of the tech giant Hooli. On "Big Love," he was the son of a polygamist cult leader. Now Ross has written and directed the new movie "Captain Fantastic" about a father living off the grid with his six children.

Also, we'll listen back to an interview with Elvis's longtime guitar player Scotty Moore. He died yesterday. He was 84. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.