Allen Toussaint “Tipitina & Me”: Rock & Roll Repast

Posted: November 16th, 2015 | Filed under: Culture, Music, Personalities | Tags: | 3 Comments »

rock3imagesThis is the fifth in a series of rock & roll essays.

First the man, then the song.

The man was regal.

Allen Toussaint walked about — no let’s be accurate — Allen Toussaint carried himself, always, with aplomb. Chin up. Erect. Attuned to his surroundings, especially the sounds, in harmony with the melody of his whereabouts.

There’s an evocative moment in this BBC documentary, when, while walking the streets of NYC, he stops to tap a steel pole he intuits to be hollow. Just to listen how sonorous it may be. Then hearing the horn of a passing cab, observes it as a minor 3d of the pole’s ring.

He was a master at the piano, a master producer in the studio, a master songwriter, and far more important to the pantheon of contemporary music than his modest reputation outside of music’s insiders would indicate. If you aren’t aware, here’s a primer, his obituary in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

He was impeccable, whether walking the promenade, or driving around in his Rolls Royce. Dapper. Bespoke. He was Saville Row, even if dressed on stage in a deep red blazer adorned with iridescent gold lamé fronds, an electric turquoise shirt, cravat of course with perfect Windsor, and his ever present stage affection for comfort, slip on sandals.

atindexHe was a confidant man. He was a humble man. He was a gracious man. He was a man of manners. A man in full.

The first year AXS-TV televised portions of the New Orleans JazzFest, a know nothing, hired for her beauty interviewer sat down with Toussaint.

“I know you were greatly influenced by Professor Longhorn, tell us about that?”

She repeated her gaffe several times.

You could sense just the slightest momentary flinch pass across Toussaint’s eyes, as she displayed her ignorance by mangling Henry Roland Byrd’s professional name. But, when she stopped blabbering, he answered calmly, with consummate grace.

“I’m sure Professor Longhair would excuse you for getting his name wrong.”

She dithered on, mentioning Toussaint’s work in the studio with Paul McCartney, indicating how big a thrill it must have been for him to get to work with the famous ex-Beatle. When, to those with some sense of the dynamic know, it would have been the vice versa.

Again, polite as always, Toussaint courteously responded.

The stately man of grace was a steely professional.

There’s this tale shared by eminent storyteller David Simon. He who created “The Wire,” the best drama in the history of recorded drama, and attempted with “Treme” to examine and reveal post-Katrina New Orleans in the same incisive manner as he had Baltimore in his classic HBO series.

In the first, I sat behind Mr. Toussaint in the control booth while he rehearsed his hand-picked New Orleans horn section on the lines of “Tears, Tears and More Tears.”  This collective, an all-star revue of the city’s best brass players, also included one Wendell Pierce, who was, as a “Treme” actor, pretending to be a part of that august group.  Mr. Pierce, who had been trying to learn some of the trombone he was pretending to play, had it in mind to contribute in some small, personal way to the musical moment.

Quietly, he slipped off the bone’s blocked mouthpiece and put in the real one, and then, as Mr. Toussaint talked about unrelated matters with Mr. (Elvis) Costello, scarcely paying attention to the rehearsal, Mr. Pierce attempted to add a few notes to the arrangement.

Mr. Toussaint wheeled.

“What was that?” he inquired, hitting the control room button.

The horn men stopped.  All of them knew, but none of them felt an immediate need to give up the imposter, so Mr. Toussaint asked each to play his line individually, nodding softly at the notes.  And then, finally:

“Wendell?  Did you play something?”

“I, um, I might have let a few notes go.”

“Wendell,” said Mr. Toussaint quietly, with the trace of a smile.  “Please don’t.

 * * * * *

It is no surprise that, as good as he is and try as he might, Simon never could totally capture the complete essence of New Orleans.

It’s a city of mystery, intrigue, clashing cultures, danger, deep seated in its history and unique ways.

It indulges. In its cuisine. In its music. In its bon temps roulez. In its ever present violence. From centuries of tension and release has evolved a beguiling personality that is gloriously one of a kind.

The city moves to its own syncopated rhythms, borne from the Creole and Hispanic, the gris gris and juju, Storyville and Rampart Street, Armstrong and Bechet, Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Cotillion dances, the Quarter and the Lakefront, redbeans, rice and filé gumbo, Huey Long and Carlos Marcello, Galatoire and Mosca’s and Domilise’s, the Neville and Marsalis clans, Fats and Mahalia, Downa Road Soldiers and Wild Tchoupitoulas, Big Freddia and The Meters, Olympia Brass Band and the second line.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to musically capture an amalgamation of all that.

Yet, one guy’s opinion, there is this Allen Toussaint creation, both sophisticated and funky, that is as close to the sum total of all that as possible.

And, it was an afterthought.

 * * * * *

As the story goes, according to producer Joe Henry, they were breaking down the studio after a recording session for the post-Katrina compilation, “Our New Orleans.”

Allen Toussaint, as was his wont, was sitting at the 88s, noodling.

Henry’s ears pricked when he heard the elegiac but innervating melody.

He ordered the mics be reset, then requested Toussaint to please play it again to be recorded.

One of Allen Toussaint’s prime axioms was, “Everywhere I go, there’s New Orleans with me.”

So it is with “Tipitina & Me,” a song full with New Orleans, and as elegant as Allen Toussaint, RIP.

— c d kaplan

3 Comments on “Allen Toussaint “Tipitina & Me”: Rock & Roll Repast”

  1. 1 Dave Henry said at 10:07 am on November 16th, 2015:

    According to Joe, that recording of “Tipitina and Me” was also the genesis of Allen Toussaint’s The Bright Mississippi (and the follow-up CD recorded barely a month before his passing). After capturing “Tipitina,” Joe asked if he’d ever thought of “making a whole record like that.” Allen deadpanned, “Never.”

  2. 2 c d kaplan said at 11:39 am on November 16th, 2015:

    Thanks, Dave, for reminding me of that. An incredible serendipitous moment.

  3. 3 Tim Schooler said at 11:51 am on November 16th, 2015:

    Elegantly worded and thoroughly engaging. Thanka for sharing your unique perspective on a man and song with which I am only mildly acquainted. I plan to remedy that slight.

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