American Tunes is Allen Toussaint's beautiful parting gift. Like its Grammy Award-nominated predecessor, 2009's The Bright Mississippi, American Tunes casts the songwriter, producer and pianist in a role he assumed late in life: the artist-pianist interpreting the music of fellow American masters. His touch is unmistakable.
Joe Henry, the man behind The Bright Mississippi and American Tunes (out June 10), made a name for himself as a producer of legacy artists. Bonnie Raitt, Aaron Neville, Irma Thomas, Mavis Staples, Emmylou Harris, Solomon Burke, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Mose Allison are in that large number.
As important as the above artists are to Henry, Toussaint occupies a special place.
"I've never had another relation-ship in my life like the one I enjoyed with Allen," Henry says. "And I won't ever again."
Henry and Toussaint's decade of collaboration began with 2005's I Believe to My Soul, a collection of new recordings by classic soul and rhythm-and-blues artists Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Mavis Staples, Ann Peebles and Billy Preston. Toussaint's willingness to travel to Los Angeles to participate in the Soul sessions surprised Henry.
"Allen told me he never imagined leaving New Orleans again," Henry says. "He played (the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival) and a couple of things here and there. He considered himself to be retired."
During a break in the I Believe to My Soul sessions, Henry overheard Toussaint playing solo piano.
"He was in the room alone," Henry recalled. "He started playing Fats Waller. I said, 'Hey. Have you ever thought of making a record like that?' He kept playing and sort of smiled and said, 'Oh, no, never.' He said it in such a way that I was sure he had thought of it."
Hurricane Katrina preceded the release of I Believe to My Soul by two months.
"I was with Allen in New York, doing press for the album," Henry recalls. "Allen, the seminal figurehead of New Orleans music, was exiled after his home was destroyed. He became the center of a lot of attention."
After the levee failures and floods in 2005, Toussaint agreed to record an album with Elvis Costello. Knowing Henry had plans to make a Toussaint solo album, the British star, invited Henry to produce the Costello-Toussaint collaboration that resulted in The River in Reverse.
Henry wouldn't realize his dream of producing a Toussaint solo album until The Bright Mississippi. When the project was finally in production, Toussaint deferred to Henry as to what he should record. Remembering Toussaint's piano soloing during the I Believe to My Soul sessions, Henry opted to present Toussaint playing music he didn't write. The Bright Mississippi features Toussaint's interpretations of classics by Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Django Reinhardt, Jelly Roll Morton, Joe "King" Oliver and Sidney Bechet.
"It was a successful project by everybody's estimation and an incredibly important for me," Henry says. "Then I spent the next six years chasing Allen to make the follow-up."
The elegant, largely instrumental American Tunes follows The Bright Mississippi template. There's music by Waller, Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Paul Simon, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Bill Evans, Earl King, Professor Longhair and Louis Moreau Gottschalk. There also are a few Toussaint compositions: the Professor Longhair-inspired "Delores' Boyfriend" and a new version of "Southern Nights." Guests Rhiannon Giddens and Van Dyke Parks join Toussaint, as do session players including saxophonist Charles Lloyd and Henry's regular rhythm section, drummer Jay Bellerose and bassist David Piltch.
American Tunes almost didn't happen. After Toussaint and Henry recorded solo piano pieces in New Orleans in 2013, sessions didn't resume until October 2015. It was completed during four intense days in Los Angeles. Toussaint died a few weeks later, on Nov. 10, following a concert in Madrid.
Two weeks before the 2015 sessions, Toussaint had asked Henry to postpone them.
"He'd done that a few times over the years," Henry says. "I said, 'No, Allen. I can't postpone this again. People have changed their schedules to accommodate us. If we're ever going to do this, now's the time. But if what you're really telling me is you don't want to do this, just say so. I love you till the end of time. I'm so proud of the work we've done together to date.' Allen came back immediately and said, 'You're right. I want to honor the schedule.'
"When Allen left the studio on the last day of recording, he was buoyant," Henry says. "He was so proud of the work. He made sure that I understood that. He said, 'I'm elated about what's happened.'"
Henry learned of Toussaint's death via a pair of early morning text messages. One from Toussaint's daughter, Alison Toussaint-LeBeaux, the other from the president of Nonesuch Records, David Bither.
"I couldn't take it in," Henry says. "I've had many moments since when it just doesn't compute that he's not among us. On the other hand, he was such a unique and mystical character. I always regarded him as being partially of this Earth. He was always dwelling in the next."