American Masters, Southern Artists: Allen Toussaint’s The Bright Mississippi, Buckwheat Zydeco’s Lay Your Burden Down, and Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys’ Best

By Daniel Garrett

Allen Toussaint
The Bright Mississippi
Produced by Joe Henry
Nonesuch Records, 2009

Stanley Dural Jr./Buckwheat Zydeco
Lay Your Burden Down
Produced by Steve Berlin
Executive Producers: Stanley Dural Jr. and Ted Fox
Alligator Records, 2009

Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys
Best of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys
Compiled by Steve Riley, David Greely, Sam Broussard
Rounder, 2008

The pianist, songwriter, and singer Allen Toussaint’s collection of song standards The Bright Mississippi is elegant, haunting, pleasing. Is that what is expected of music made by a musician in Louisiana? It is odd that the definitions that confine us often come from people who do not know us: that happens to individuals and it happens to cultures. I can think of conversations I have had with people about Louisiana who were sure that they knew the state although they had not stepped foot in it, nor bothered to do even small, significant research. If anyone wants to know what music in Louisiana is like, he or she can listen to Allen Toussaint’s The Bright Mississippi, Buckwheat Zydeco’s Lay Your Burden Down, and Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys’ Best of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys. He or she might want to find out as well about Bad Chad and the Good Girls, Marc Broussard, Jeffery Broussard, Feufollet, The Figs, Rosie Ledet, Wynton Marsalis, The Neville Brothers, Picardy Birds, The Pine Leaf Boys, Irma Thomas, and Cedric Watson. Allen Toussaint’s The Bright Mississippi, Buckwheat Zydeco’s Lay Your Burden Down, and Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys’ Best of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys happen to be recordings by men who have become part of music history, recordings that enlarge perceptions of their contributions.

 

 

In pianist Allen Toussaint’s elegant, haunting, and pleasing The Bright Mississippi, the horns in “Egyptian Fantasy” make me think of well-dressed people promenading down a well-kept street, greeting each other, showing off their clothes and their happiness. There is a pictorial quality as well to “A Dear Old Southland,” featuring piano and trumpet. Allen Toussaint’s interpretation of “St. James Infirmary,” a song of restrained grief that was better known in past decades, achieves a unique sound, the piano and guitar creating rhythms and tones that quicken and darken. “Singin’ the Blues” is theatrical, prancing, teasing, while “Winin’ Boy Blues” is ruminative, and “West End Blues” torchy.

 

 

These songs on The Bright Mississippi are part of the jazz tradition, and inaugurate a significant return for Allen Toussaint, for his first solo album in more than a decade, a return to the music of his much celebrated, much lamented city, New Orleans, the music of African-American men: the music of men such as clarinetist and saxophone player Sidney Bechet, a cosmopolitan traveler; and the half-blind experimental cornet performer Joe Oliver, a teacher of Louis Armstrong; and pianist Jelly Roll Morton, a bridge between ragtime and jazz. The album also has the music of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and Thelonious Monk. Toussaint, who is now in his seventies, has said that this is music he has loved but not had the chance to perform at length. Performing The Bright Mississippi’s compositions and improvisations with Toussaint are drummer Jay Bellerose, clarinetist Don Byron, pianist Brad Mehldau, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, bassist David Piltch, saxophonist Joshua Redman, and guitarist Marc Ribot.

 

 

In his album notes for The Bright Mississippi, “I Cover the Waterfront,” the producer Joe Henry said that Allen Toussaint was one of a group of men who embodied something fundamental: “that men of African descent, born in America, were men first before they were either of those other things; and men who had a foot not just in two worlds, but one on a dock and the other on a rocking, untethered boat, having always to bridge the two—a knowable heritage and an unfaithful inheritance—by keeping them close together.” Joe Henry named Miles Davis, Muhammad Ali, Sidney Poitier, Julian Bond, Curt Flood, LeRoi Jones, and Richard Pryor as being among those men who defined a particular time. Henry, who previously worked with Toussaint on the recordings Our New Orleans (2005) and The River in Reverse (2006), two recordings that occurred in response to hurricane Katrina, notes that Toussaint’s profile is that of a self-assured gentleman and that his musical style is enriched by many different aspects of music history.

 

 

Whereas Our New Orleans featured a panoply of musicians, such as Irma Thomas and Dr. John, The River in Reverse was just Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint; and about The River in Reverse, one critic, Billboard’s Wayne Robbins, noted, “the dominant sound on The River in Reverse is the familiar sophisticated strut of Toussaint’s elegant piano fillips and filigrees. There are five new Costello/Toussaint compositions here, seven wonderful, mostly obscure Toussaint tunes and Costello’s artful, aching title song” (June 10, 2006). Another writer, Zeth Lundy of the online magazine Pop Matters, delved deeper into the complexity of the recording, and the unique meeting of two different musicians: “The River in Reverse isn’t about one thing, then, although it does regularly bemoan ‘men makin’ laws that destroy other men,’ remembers when ‘we talked about love and peace of mind,’ and helplessly hopes that ‘there must be something better than this.’ Mixed in with the disillusionment and ire (by-products, most obviously, of hurricane Katrina’s devastation and the lackluster response) are meditations on beauty; a song like ‘Nearer to You’ puts both the New Orleans mystique and pop music itself up on pedestals. Tragedy, it would seem, bears more than tears” (June 16, 2006). The River in Reverse and Our New Orleans are antecedents to The Bright Mississippi, but The Bright Mississippi opens a window to much of the foundation of New Orleans musical culture, on what has been threatened, lost, and retrieved.

 

 

The Bright Mississippi does not feel like nostalgia or tribute: it is music that breathes, caresses, laughs, moans, music that lives. On The Bright Mississippi, there is a somewhat Latin flavor, with a nice plucking sound, in “Blue Drag.” The spiritual “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” is neither sad nor mournful; instead it is a bit festive, while still sounding thoughtful. “Bright Mississippi” has its horns blasting, and “Day Dream” is sensuous. The only song featuring Allen Toussaint’s singing is “Long, Long Journey,” a song about needing one person among many, before the last song “Solitude.” Elegant, haunting, pleasing.

 

 

Whereas Allen Toussaint’s The Bright Mississippi is music of the city, Buckwheat Zydeco’s work conjures country life as much as it does dancehalls and love (and the same can be said for Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys). The principal musician in Buckwheat Zydeco is Stanley Dural Jr., and Buckwheat Zydeco’s Lay Your Burden Down is a new album that commemorates Stanley Dural Jr.’s thirtieth anniversary as a musician, but it is less a look back at the past than a full-hearted embrace of the present. Here Dural is working with Lee Allen Zeno, a bassist, Reginald Dural, a singer and rub-board player, Kevin Menard, a drummer, Oliver Scoazec, a guitarist, Michael Melchione, another guitarist, and Curtis Watson, a trumpeter. The song that begins the collection Lay Your Burden Down, Joe McCoy’s “When the Levee Breaks,” alludes to a recurrent fact of southern life: hurricanes; and the song has a clatter and clash to it, with lyrics to match, that rock musicians would be glad to claim. The remembrance of a difficult past, JJ Grey’s “The Wrong Side,” is blues-inflected zydeco music, with a thick guitar and piano rhythm in contrast to the lightness of Stanley Dural Jr.’s accordion, and features Dural’s voice of vulnerability. Dural lends the song something of his own essence, something of hurt and humility, something surprising for a musician who has performed for presidents, and shared the same stage as performers such as Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Mavis Staples, and U2 and before them the legendary zydeco performer Clifton Chenier. (Success doesn’t change everyone.) This is a man who can explore pain as much as party; and on Lay Your Burden Down the rhythm doesn’t settle in “Let Your Yeah Be Yeah,” something that I imagine will make the song, written by James Chambers, still attractive in years to come. (It’s not a strange thing to believe—I last listened to Buckwheat Zydeco’s 1980s albums On a Night Like This and Taking It Home just a few months ago.) Dural’s singing in that song and in “Don’t Leave Me” has a simplicity and sincerity that convince (he co-wrote “Don’t Leave Me” with Ted Fox, one of the album’s producers). “Throw Me Something Mister” is an uptempo Mardi Gras song, with a party sound, multiple voices, while “Lay Your Burden Down” (Warren Haynes, Michael Barbiero) has a blues-rock sound, and Dural’s own “Time Goes By” is rollicking, as is Dural’s zydeco piece “Ninth Place.” Something of a pleasantly country sound is achieved with Don Van Vliet’s “Too Much Time,” while “Finding My Way Back Home,” which completes the collection, is a marvelously downbeat instrumental piece.

The Best of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys is a two compact-disk set featuring music that conveys the sound of past times and old places, a sense of community and shared sensibility. A listener has to be willing to enter into the mood of the music, as he would the work of any unique culture; and when he does he will find music that chatters, entices, and laments, and music in which it is easy to feel the impulse to dance. The Best of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys is a collection of songs spanning twenty years in the development of a band that has made itself important to many people in Louisiana and to others who follow music with roots in daily life and social history. One hears a connection to old-fashion country music, a heavy but swinging sound, both rhythmic and plaintive, propelled by a fiddle and acoustic guitar, and featuring an accordion and triangle, and sung in the French language: this is the music of the Cajun people of Louisiana, descendants of people banished from Acadia (Canada) in the mid-eighteenth century. Do I hear transcendence in the music? Where is the transcendence in music so tied to local culture? Sometimes the refusal to be affected by the world, often, in turn, inspires the indifference of the world. In The Best of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, whether a song is presented in a storytelling ballad style or with a force and focus similar to rock music, the instruments carry the tone of personality. Sometimes there is a surprising inflection of delicacy, of tenderness, qualities to be more appreciated in lives that can be difficult, rough. After so long a time, I am glad to be introduced to The Best of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys. And gladness abounds. This is American music by American masters: Allen Toussaint’s The Bright Mississippi, Buckwheat Zydeco’s Lay Your Burden Down, and Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys’ Best Of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys.

Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, PopMatters.com, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. He has written fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, and criticism. Daniel Garrett’s web log at Blogger.com, focused on culture and society, is called “City and Country, Boy and Man.” His e-mail address is D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com

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