Allen Toussaint: Advanced Theory

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Published  December 2015

ANTIGRAVITY-DECEMBER2015-WEB_Page_10_Image_0001ANTIGRAVITY reached out to our good friend Casey McAllister to share his thoughts on the passing last month of legendary producer, musician, and all-around exemplary citizen of New Orleans and the world, Allen Toussaint.  Casey is an accomplished piano man, film composer, and producer in his own right, with time served in King James and the Special Men, Hurray for the Riff Raff, and Langhorne Slim & The Law. Casey’s score for the Ross Brothers film, Western, is currently nominated for a Cinema Eye Honors award.


 

Advanced Theory was developed by a couple of muso geeks as a means of explaining confusing artistic decisions made by otherwise arguably faultless musicians. Un- ironic moves by the likes of Dylan, Bowie, and Lou Reed resulted in some seemingly bad records that  require an understanding most of us are just not prepared to offer. While Allen Toussaint doesn’t fit this mold to a T, there  are definitely some things about the man that don’t neatly fit in his usual categories.  The fact that this never involved alienating a large group of fans or losing his shit publicly may be an argument for extra-advanced theory.

Obvious stuff out of the way— everyone likes to bring up his socks and sandals. Generally  not a good look, especially with an outlandish suit. Historically, odd sartorial choices among our fonkiest ambassadors is expected.  I’m thinking of Clinton’s braids, Bootsy’s whole Bootsiness, Sly,

K-Doe, Booker, endless etc. Allen somehow managed to maintain an old-school  air of gentility while pulling off some trés strange ensembles with impunity, like it was the most natural thing ever. “What, you don’t wear a metallic  rainbow coat, purple slacks, a dayglo orange shirt and a gigantic medallion with the name of your hit single on it? Well, right on, then. Hey, dig these socks!” You could have never heard of the guy before, but he’d roll up looking like king of the royal LSD court, and you wouldn’t think it was strange for a second. Clearly advanced.

In Stevenson J. Palfi’s film, Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together, the title itself comes from Allen’s advanced handling of a situation where he was asked to play piano together with Tuts Washington and Professor Longhair. After scenes introducing each player, Palfi separately asks each how they’d feel about playing with one another, all at once. Tuts says “We can do that!” Fess likes the idea as well, and immediately starts thinking of songs they might play. Allen Toussaint, seated behind his RMI Electra-Piano (more about that in a minute) answers “Tuts, Fess, me?” Then after a long pause, continues, incredulously, “Noooooo wayyy… nowhere near… no, there would be nothing to make me think of that! …If Tuts and Fess start playing I should just sit and listen like I did for many years… Of course that  sounds a little dramatic, but ah, that’s how really dramatic it is.” Then Toussaint sidesteps with: “Piano players rarely ever play together.” He then goes on to not only play with both professors, but does so at his own studio and in the scene, seems to even coolly show up last. Toussaint manages to maintain extreme cool, respect his heroes, seem reluctant, and still host the whole situation. Go on, man. Advanced class is in session.

A drummer associate the other  day told me “Man, Toussaint would always say how he idolized Fess, but you don’t hear it in his playing!” Contrarily, his playing is doused in Fess. Where Longhair  could be a bit angular and fonky, Allen would smooth it out and play it more cool, more suited to the R&B/pop music he made. I always got the idea he was playing a lot less piano than he was able. Allen said in an interview once that he rarely used the augmented eleventh chord. That chord, he figured, should exist in the realm  of sophisticated jazzers like Duke Ellington and called its use the equivalent of “bringing your own pool stick” or “your name on your bowling ball.” When playing old style R&B piano, which is about my favorite thing to do, my list of no-go chords is quite a bit longer. That music’s gotta be tough. While I love to bring the sweet, sweet sounds into that toughness, a man should  know what he can carry off. Allen was able to lay out some chords I generally stay far away from in any sort of blues/R&B-based con-fonk-  shun, and they always sounded completely “appropriated.” Extra  advanced points for tossing out some advanced shit and deflecting  credit to Duke.

 

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Our ears are all different, and our brains and hearts even more so, but musicians have to make this thing together. It’s a band. If we’re not on the same page, we still have to function like we are. This is not always easy, and usually includes  some fundamental frustration. There have been lots of great stories  popping up recently about our man’s expert handling of possibly tense situations. David Simon penned a tribute which included some shining examples. My favorite  might be the one where they’re about to shoot a scene for Treme in which Mr. Toussaint will lead a live band. The director “attempted to call action to a scene not merely by rolling speed on sound and calling camera and action, but by actually—I kid you not—attempting to count down Mr. Toussaint’s band, as if he were Lawrence Welk coming out of a commercial break: ‘And-ah-one, and-ah-two, and-ah…’ The musicians stared at him blankly, fixed and immobile. Quietly, at the piano, Mr. Toussaint gave a small cough to break the stillness. ‘Sorry about that,’ Mr. Toussaint said. ‘Some sheep only follow one shepherd.’ After which, he kicked them off.”

There’s another scene in Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together where he’s singing and playing while arranging the band and backup singers. After a short break in the tune, the singers come back in beautifully, but Toussaint is not happy with the arrangement. The camera operator closes in on Allen’s face, and for the tiniest fraction of a moment, we can almost make out something like frustration there. His eyes close in quiet resignation, he barely clenches his teeth and then, before anyone registers any disappointment on his part, says “Okay, ladies” and politely corrects the situation.

I was in an airport last year, and not at my best. I wasn’t working on a spiritual wavelength that would allow me to understand anyone or be understood by anyone. A total  stranger could see the cloud over my head, and my travel mates were definitely avoiding me. Whatever. I walked on ahead of everyone, fuming for mostly no reason at all. At the sunglasses shop by the gate, among some of the most offensive insults to ever cross a nose, I spotted an incredible pair of gold and brown shades almost identical to some I’d seen on Allen in a photo from the ‘70s. Allen wore them immeasurably better, but I got ‘em anyway. I figured I might seize an opportunity to court  some magic, get a little bit of that  cool Allen spirit going, and maybe turn my day around. Damned if it didn’t work! By the time I got to bag check, whatever nasty crap I’d been radiating was nowhere to be found, and we all had a lovely dinner that  night. I wish I hadn’t left those sunglasses in a hotel somewhere down the road, but if they only saved that one day, they were worth  it. Advanced shit. Thanks Allen.

 

PROFESSOR STRANGESOUNDS OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE ELECTRA-PIANO

Before keyboards with great piano sounds and weighted keys came out and you could carry a solid rig under one arm, a decent piano sound in a room with no piano was a problem, Jack. On a tour or a gig, you had few options, and none that  sounded or played anything like a piano. Electro-acoustic pianos  like the Rhodes and the Wurlitzer were the champs here, followed somewhat by Hohner’s Pianet (used to good effect by The Zombies) and a few other more questionable offerings. Among these were archaic  electronic beasts like the RMI Electra-Piano. It had three sounds, which were really just one sound  with filter and envelope differences.  The Electra made an anemic “der” sound, nothing like much of anything very musical. It had no dynamic range and static, artificial  sustain. However, they were easier  to carry around than a piano and required less maintenance than a Rhodes or a Wurly, so they got some use on the road. In the studio, there  would usually be at least an upright piano. You hear the RMI mostly on prog records. Keith Emerson used one and Tony Banks from Genesis loved them and has said that, at the time, it did a close facsimile of a piano (I suppose maybe our ears were somewhat less focused in the early ‘70s).

Sly Stone used one a bit, but otherwise, you rarely hear these in non prog music. Allen, however, used the thing extensively  and proudly, and often on tracks  alongside a real piano. An Electra- Piano residing at Toussaint’s Sea- Saint Studio is all over records made there in the mid ‘70s (cue Dr. John’s “Right Place Wrong Time”—derder derder derder derder derderderder…). It sounds cool as hell on everything he used it on. Typically, these things  sound like a chorus of stuttering mosquitos. On Allen’s recording of “Southern Nights,” stacked on top of all that pretty harp-like black key piano, there it is—the in-any-  other-hands-uncomfortable sound  of the RMI Electra-Piano—killing. In Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together, there is a clip of him playing Professor Longhair licks on one. While it sounds great, we think  “Oh, that must be what was close at hand.” No. They were in a well- equipped studio. There was at least one real piano in the building. He chose the RMI. Funky. Advanced.

In New Orleans we’ve never been short of great musicians, sinister ministers, or otherwise outrageous characters from which to draw fonky inspiration. It’s been rare in my generation to see those traits tucked into the sort of graceful and effortless cool Allen constantly resonated. We sometimes say folks are like royalty. Allen was royalty. I was proud to get to play with him once, and was affected each time our paths crossed. Professor Toussaint was, as he said of Ellington, “a class A, superb  individual” and a profoundly advanced human.

 

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