We catch up with the pianist from the Big Easy as he brings his sweet, soulful sound to town for two nights.
By Kyle Mullin
Allen Toussaint hails from New Orleans—a city plagued by poverty, crime and burst levees. So when he travels, the lauded R&B pianist loves visiting locales that value structure. He adds that will especially be the case during his latest tour stop in Tokyo, which features gigs at Billboard Live tonight and Wednesday evening.
“I love to go to Japan. Everything is usually manicured so extremely well,” Toussaint says over the phone from his New Orleans abode, in a recent exclusive with Tokyo Weekender. “I love the politeness of Japanese people, how organized things are. There’s such an exciting amount of traffic and movement of people, and yet everything seems to work so extremely well. I love Japan dearly.”
Toussaint himself has received quite similar comments over the years, critics deeming him to be refined and eloquent as they praised albums like his 1971 eponymous breakthrough, his 2006 collaboration with Elvis Costello dubbed The River in Reverse, and the pianist’s latest release, a reinterpreted retrospective of his best compositions entitled Songbook. Many of those tunes have already been most famously covered by some of Toussaint’s talented friends. The Doors took on his bluesy “Get Out of My Life Woman,” while country star Glen Campbell sang a twangy version of “Southern Night.” Even zany new wavers like Devo have tapped into Toussaint’s catalogue, covering “Working in the Coal Mine.” From the eclectic descendants who were influenced by him, to the fans who attend his shows—everyone seems to agree that Toussaint is a uniquely gifted gentleman, complimenting his humble demeanor, ornate suits, and debonair playing in equal measure.
But when Toussaint actually sits down in front of a piano, is he as precise as he appears? Is he as meticulous as the Japanese perfectionism that he admires so deeply?
“I hope it just comes out that way,” he says of his refined playing, adding that the pristine result is far less deliberate than it seems. “The creative process is something that I like to do, and then later I evaluate whether or not it was meticulously done. I would hope that meticulousness is just innately a part of my life, seeing as I’ve played so often over the years.”
And while he may not actively employ such a rigid disposition while playing the piano, Toussaint relishes the care and attention to detail that goes into the instrument itself.
“Oh, by all means, I can tell when a piano is well made, well put together and working as they intended,” he says, adding that the most important factor resides in the keys. “It’s called the action—from the time you press down, until it makes a sound and comes back up. The effort that takes, and the way it feels, are all so important.”
He goes on to describe what type of key action is his preference: “If the action is hard, then it’s harder to play. Some pianos take a lot of strength to press the keys down. I’d rather not deal with those if I don’t have to, because you may not be able to play as smoothly as you’d like. I’d rather not attack the piano brutally.”
On the other hand, Toussaint says that more than a bit of resistance in necessary, adding: “It’s no good if the keys are so tinkly light that you don’t know what to do with them. And of course, with certain kinds of music, I’d like the action to be harder. Like if I were to play a boogie-woogie—and I love to play boogie-woogie.”
In fact, that jovially rough and tumble genre was the first that Toussaint learned to play. Considering the velvety smooth jazz and R&B that he’s known for today, fans may find his boogie-woogie upbringing surprising. But Toussaint says it shouldn’t be.
“The creative process is something that I like to do, and then later I evaluate whether or not it was meticulously done. I would hope that meticulousness is just innately a part of my life.”
As a boy, he would play boogie-woogie hits for his mother and her friends in the living room of their ramshackle home. The family owned an upright piano that stubbornly stayed out of tune. But Toussaint tells us that he adores that ragged instrument to this day, especially for its flaws. “It was a tall upright, which meant the strings were loud enough to give you a good sound. It was a half step flat all the time, which gave it a ragtime sound that invited you to play things like boogie-woogie and a lot of hillbilly music. Because it was always out of tune, whenever I would learn a song along with the recording, I would have to play a half step higher to compensate for the key difference. It taught me how to play in odd keys better than if I were to have started on a piano that was in tune. Now I can play with any singer easily, even if they sing in an unconventional key. Those kinds of things were a blessing.”
Such challenges and flaws would leave most of us frustrated, to say the least. But Toussaint sees hurdles as stepping stones—be it the tension of piano keys’ action, the tuneless strings that forced him to compensate, or the impoverished neighborhood he grew up in. He may now have an affinity for the finer things in life, like tailored suits, orderly cities and immaculate craftsmanship. But he can appreciate all that’s pristine only because he has drawn so much strength from his hometown’s gorgeous ruggedness. Such resilient optimism served him especially well after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. He tirelessly played benefits to raise funds and awareness for his neighbors’ plight, even as the government’s recovery plans proved to be inept and insufficient.
Despite those struggles, Toussaint says his city has actually been well served by the tragedy—at least in the end.
“New Orleans is in wonderful shape. Better than ever, as far as I’m concerned,” he says, before elaborating on why such a statement is far from naïve. “People are up to the task of getting things in great condition. We’re flexing some muscle. We had become very complacent in having a good time, feeling good about ourselves and our wonderful city, with its old world charm and all. Katrina caused us to have to see more in people than we ever saw before, because more was called on us.”
Allen Toussaint will be playing tonight and tomorrow. For detailed information, visit Billboard Live’s site.
Kyle Mullin is a roaming rock journalist who has contributed to music mags around the world. You can read his interviews with Iggy Pop, David Byrne and St. Vincent, Brian Wilson, Ai Weiwei and others at kylelawrence.wordpress.com. He spoke with James Blake and Kendrick Lamar for Tokyo Weekender in June and July this year.
Image: Chris Bentley/Flickr