DownBeat, June 2006

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Flowing collaboration

Dan Ouellette

Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint travel to New Orleans for the city's first major post-Katrina recording

Allen Toussaint's house still stands, but remains uninhabitable. His recording studio is gone, swept away. The diaspora to which he belongs persists. And his city's music endures, even if its musicians have been scattered by last fall's maelstrom. But New Orleans, presently a hint of its former glory, will be fine in the future, says Toussaint, the city's 68-year-old maestro of popular music.

The soft-spoken, refined Crescent City native — who's temporarily residing in New York while waiting for his house to be refurbished — has a positive outlook. "I've heard people worry about the city becoming a Disneyland when it's rebuilt," he says. "That'll never happen. New Orleans has something about it that says, 'I'm this.' That will prevail. The baptism of Katrina didn't kill that."

Toussaint smiles and nods across the hotel suite at the W in Union Square to Elvis Costello, the pop music omnivore who shares his passion — and optimism — in restoring the New Orleans soul that sired the heart of American music. Costello also served as the catalyst to their collaborative CD project, The River In Reverse, which was the first major recording project tracked in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent floods. It serves as a poignant and joyful testament to the city's cultural legacy.

"Popular music wouldn't be what it is today if New Orleans was only about Louis Armstrong," Costello says. "People think I'm exaggerating when I say something like this, but it's true. The music there is so deep, wide, rich and beautiful."

As for The River In Reverse (Verve Forecast), Costello says, "I don't want people to think of this as a grandstand statement. This album began as a way to celebrate Alien's songbook and his voices — as a piano player, arranger and singer — that have been underestimated."

But he acknowledges that the recording of the album became something bigger. It's a symbol of hope that the spirit of New Orleans will again shine vibrantly in its homeland. As for his role in the recording, Costello says, "I can't adopt the legends of the Mardi Gras and be credible. I had to find my own way to express how all the music that has come from that city has affected me over the years."

Both looking dapper in suits and sipping cups of licorice tea, Toussaint and London-born, New York-based Costello are preparing to perform a showcase of music from The River In Reverse — a mix of obscure Toussaint tunes, collaboratively written new songs and a fresh Costello number written in the aftermath of Katrina — in the intimate Joe's Pub later this evening. It's mid-February, a few months after the plethora of benefit concerts for hurricane relief and fundraising CDs, when the attention to the cause has waned.

It's no surprise then that the Costello hookup with Toussaint has been suspect in some camps and chastised by detractors who question the former's motivation. In its capsule preview to the show at Joe's Pub, Time Out New York wrote that "Costello's late-breaking buddy-buddy ship with... Toussaint to us smacks of opportunism. Moreover, the pairing just doesn't make sense."

On the surface, the Costello-Toussaint team does seem like an odd partnership. Personality-wise, the two couldn't be more different. Costello, 51, talks fast and beams in boyish enthusiasm as if he were living his wildest dream every day as a musician exploring beyond popmusic constraints. His mother, who worked in future-Beatles manager Brian Epstein's record store in Liverpool, once said that when she was pregnant she listened to all kinds of music — from jazz to pop — so that her son could learn to appreciate music in the womb. The jovial Brit is a classic extrovert.

In contrast, Toussaint is a reserved introvert with a gentlemanly manner who speaks slowly and quietly in a slight Southern drawl. He's steeped in the A-through-Z of New Orleans music, and comes from the Big Easy piano school of Professor Longhair. "I'm a Fess disciple," he says. "He's my patron saint, my Bach."

While Costello and Toussaint come from different planets, they're both on the same page when it comes to music. Each admires the other for his sensitivity to song craft.

As for Costello seeking out a "late-breaking" friendship with Toussaint, the allegation lacks substance. In fact, the two worked together twice before, dating back to 1983 when Costello sought out Toussaint to produce his rendition of Yoko Ono's song "Walking On Thin Ice" for an album of interpretations of her own compositions she was releasing.

"I heard Alien's songs before I knew his name," says Costello, who remembers well the fondness of the Merseybeat bands of his youth for Toussaint's song "Fortune Teller." He was also a fan of r&b singer Lee Dorsey, who was a hit-maker with many of Toussaint's tunes, including "Ride Your Pony" and "Working In The Coal Mine."

"Lee Dorsey's music was when I started to pay attention to who was behind the songs," Costello says. "It was like a good secret. Little by little I got the story that he wrote or arranged this and that and that."

When he was becoming established as a rising-star pop artist, Costello was also seeking out his heroes in vital outposts of American music such as Memphis and New Orleans. "When we'd tour, on our days off I always tried to plot out a way to get to those towns that I wanted to visit," he says. "For Yoko's song, I knew I could only record it on the road. I thought of making the impossible request — getting either Willie Mitchell or Alien Toussaint to produce the track. I called Allen up and he said, 'Let's do it.' We went to New Orleans and spent three days at his SeaSaint Studio. It was difficult interpreting a song as unusual as Yoko's, but we did a good job. Plus, it was magical working with Alien. It was like a dream."

In 1988, a couple of years following his 1986 King Of America, Costello began working on Spike with his co-producer T Bone Burnett. Recording sessions took place in Dublin, London, Hollywood and, because Costello "was hearing some different sounds in my new songs," New Orleans, where he enlisted Toussaint. "I felt completely confident working with Alien again," he says.

In the liner notes to the expanded version of Spike, Costello wrote about recording with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Toussaint at Southlake Studio: "[Allen] pretty much set the scene for 'Deep Dark Truthful Mirror' with his colossal piano part [while] the Dozen played off his performance.... It was like seeing a sketch turn into a painting."

Toussaint didn't know much about Costello before they met. "I just knew there was an Elvis Costello," he says. "But I was stationary in New Orleans. New Orleans was cut off from the rest of the world in many ways. What was common knowledge to other folks, well, you'd have to leave New Orleans to check that out. I didn't know his music."

But once Toussaint got to know Costello, he recognized him as a "scholar" of all stripes of pop. "Once I started to hear his world of music, I didn't know how I could have been sheltered from it that long," he says. "I'm glad I'm wide awake now."

Costello regrets that he lost contact with Toussaint, but was pleased to run into him when they both performed on the same stage at the 2005 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

Their next encounter came in the wake of catastrophe. Costello was on holiday on Vancouver Island with his wife, Diana Krall, when Katrina hit New Orleans and the levees were breached. One of his first concerns was for the well-being of Toussaint. He contacted his friend Joe Henry, who told Costello that he heard Toussaint was fine, that he had vacated New Orleans for New York at the urging of Joshua Feigenbaum, who co-founded NYNO Records in 1996 with Toussaint to record music from the Crescent City.

The next day, Sept. 4, Costello played the Bumbershoot Seattle Arts Festival main stage as a solo act. "I wanted to sing what was in my head and heart," he says, "so I closed the show with Allen's 'Freedom For The Stallion.' I sang it to remind people of what was happening in New Orleans."

As Katrina approached the Crescent City, Toussaint figured he'd weather the storm. "I had been through hurricanes, and I thought I knew the nature of them," he says. "They come and wreak a little havoc, then you take your boards back down and put 'em back behind the garage. I've had 12 inches of water in my house more than once. I knew how to handle that. I wanted to stick it out. But this was quite different."

Toussaint checked into the Astor Crowne Plaza hotel on Bourbon Street, but as the city's plight worsened, he took a bus to Baton Rouge and caught a flight to New York. Feigenbaum called Toussaint the day before the storm hit. "Alien refused to leave, but then came here when he could get out of the city," Feigenbaum says. "He stayed up here, but got depressed every day watching CNN. So I asked him if he wanted work, and he said sure."

Feigenbaum contacted Bill Bragin, who programs Joe's Pub and who had been the founding general manager of NYNO Records. "I asked Bill if maybe Alien could open up some shows on the piano, and he said, 'We can do better than that,'" Feigenbaum says.

Bragin recalls a conversation he had with Dan Melnick, the artistic director of Festival Productions, about what the music community could do to help in the aftermath of Katrina. "Our conclusion was that [since] we produce concerts, we should produce concerts," Bragin says. "The best way to help New Orleans musicians was to let them do what they do — make a living and support their city by making music."

Since Joe's Pub's evening shows were booked, Bragin inserted a couple of solo-piano weekend matinees featuring Toussaint. Remarkably, this was the first time he had ever performed solo. They were immediate sellouts. Meanwhile, Wynton Marsalis had asked Costello to perform at the Jazz at Lincoln Center Frederick P. Rose Hall benefit to raise hurricane relief funds. Costello told Marsalis about his Bumbershoot tribute, that Toussaint was in New York and that he wanted to perform the song with him. Costello and Toussaint hooked up and rehearsed.

"We followed McCoy Tyner and Harry Belafonte," Costello says. "McCoy played this mind-bending music, then Harry came on and it's like hearing Moses speak. All I could do was sing the best I could."

The performance was not only moving, but it also planted a seed. With the wheels turning inside his head about putting together a Toussaint songbook album, the next day Costello caught his Joe's Pub matinee. "I didn't know what the album would look like, if I could produce it or maybe sing on it. But I knew that Alien's songs and the tradition he comes from are so central to jazz and popular music."

Around the same time Costello and Toussaint performed together again at the Madison Square Garden "From the Big Apple to the Big Easy" benefit, Verve Music Group A&R exec John McEwen contacted Costello with a similar recording concept. "Allen and I started discussing what this record would look like," Costello says. "We agreed to record selections from his songbook that were not the obvious ones that everyone knew — songs that were close to the heart. And we discussed the possibility that we could write some songs together."

For Toussaint, everything in his musical life was suddenly converging at a whirlwind tempo. "I always make the distinction between the pace of New Orleans and everywhere else in America," he says. "We sort of mosey along in New Orleans. I've been coming to New York for years — for business and I have family in the Bronx — so I know the pace here. You have to hold your hand out and catch it. That's what I understood about Elvis' exhilaration. As fast as the pace of New York is, the pace of Elvis is even faster. There's a lot going on with Elvis."

After a tour in Europe, Costello returned to New York in early November, and the pair met up in Feigenbaum's apartment. "It was a comfortable place for them," Feigenbaum says. "I got the piano tuned up and made sure they had plenty of tea. Then I got out of the apartment and let the two professionals work."

Nothing jelled at first. "It seemed like the piano was antimagnetic," Costello says. "We couldn't touch it for a long time. It was like we had never heard music before."

The icebreaker was Toussaint's minor-key version of Professor Longhair's classic "Tipitina," which he had played at Joe's Pub. "A door opened with that onto a whole [musical] history that never gets talked about," Costello says. "I wanted to catch something of the feeling of what Allen was playing, to write lyrics that fit with the melancholy and reflection of this piece. It's a presumptuous thing to add new lyrics to something as indelible as Tipitina,' but I wanted to adopt the signature of Alien's music, like the hymnal cadence in the chorus."

The next day Costello sang the lyrics of the retitled "Ascension Day" to Toussaint. "Alien liked it. We couldn't get on the piano fast enough," Costello laughs. "I was playing the guitar, Alien was playing the piano, and then sometimes we were both on the piano at the same time, our two hands crossing over. You know you're getting to something when you're saying to each other, 'It's this chord,' 'No, it's this chord.' I could never presume to tell Allen how to phrase anything, but sometimes I would come up with a voicing or harmonic idea. We went from having nothing to different kinds of collaborations. When we wrote 'Six-Fingered Man,' we were completing each other's sentences musically."

Toussaint had never experienced a songwriting collaborative session like that before. "Elvis came so well-equipped," he says. "He comes with ideas. Elvis was the general leading us to the hill."

Toussaint songbook tunes, including the funked up "On Your Way Down," the gospel-tinged "Nearer To You" and the soul cooker "Tears, Tears And More Tears" - all newly relevant in light of Katrina's ravages — are open to interpretation, Costello says, then adds, "But why change something that's already perfect? Alien's arrangements already have all these nuances that were integral to the composition."

Soon after working up a batch of tunes, Costello and Toussaint, who both sing on the project, headed into the studio to have, in Costello's words, "a dialogue between people from different parts of the world."

Pegged to produce the sessions was Henry, who had also produced the Toussaint tracks ("Yes We Can Can" and "Tipitina And Me") for Nonesuch's Our New Orleans 2005 benefit album. He had been in conversation with Toussaint about recording an album of his material for his I Believe To My Soul series when Costello came up with his songbook album idea. "Elvis didn't want to get in the way of something I had planned, but I felt that Alien should have the opportunity to do whatever he should pursue," Henry says. "So, we all decided to do this together."

Henry first became friendly with Costello when he produced Solomon Burke's comeback album, Don't Give Up On Me, in 2002. "When I hit problems bringing the concept together of / Believe To My Soul," Henry says, "I used Elvis as my sounding board and champion."

When his original pianist for the project bowed out, Costello suggested contacting Toussaint, who jumped at the last-minute invite. "I was flabbergasted that he agreed," Henry says. "He pulled the project together. I keep his picture on my wall as a reminder."

Even though he knew Costello and Toussaint, Henry still felt nervous about his role in The River In Reverse. "I'd never produced artists and their bands before," he says. "I always saw myself as a smart casting director — putting a band together and then directing the proceedings to try to make the magical and unique happen during the conversing and collisions. But here I was being asked to bring my point of view to a project where Elvis had his group and Allen had his people. As it turned out, they needed someone to take charge, to take the wheel and drive."

Henry found Costello to be "an open-hearted collaborator who was trusting" of suggestions and Toussaint to be "the producer's producer and the closest person alive that has the open-mindedness and transcendence of Duke Ellington." The first day's session was daunting in preparation, Henry recalls. "But the apprehension evaporated once it became clear how respectful everyone was to each other and how much we were on the same page philosophically with the material. The first day's sessions produced three masters and provided the template for the rest of the recording."

The group at the session consisted of Costello's rock band the Imposters (Steve Nieve, who switched from piano to B-3, bassist Davey Faragher and drummer Pete Thomas) and Toussaint's electric guitarist (Anthony Brown) and horn section (baritone saxophonists Brian Cayolle and Carl Blouin, tenor saxophonist Amadee Castenell, trumpeter Joe Smith and trombonist Sam Williams).

The first week of the The River In Reverse sessions took place in late November at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, then moved to Piety Street Recorders in New Orleans in early December. Nearly the entire album was performed live with minimal overdubs. "You listen to the mix back, and you hear how much life there is in the music," Costello says. "That's where the vitality of interpreting songs comes from. You can hear it in Allen's song 'Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further?' I can't think of a better question to ask right now, but not in a heavy-handed way."

Costello beams at Toussaint's lyrics and recites the last verse: "What happened to that Liberty Bell I heard so much about? / Did it really ding dong? / It must have dinged wrong / It didn't ding long." He loves those lines: "That's why we sing the verse twice. I like the idea of handing the words back and forth, playing it like a little group having a conversation."

Also on the CD is the urgent and angry title track that Costello penned the afternoon before he appeared at The New Yorker magazine's benefit event at Town Hall in September. The lyrics in the chorus are pointed:

"Wake me up
Wake me up with a slap or a kiss
There must be something better than this
I don't see how it can get much worse
What do we have to do to send the river in reverse?"

"I wrote the song in 10 minutes," Costello says. "I had all these images floating around in my head for a week and they suddenly solidified into that song."

While the album has its Costello-Toussaint-composed moments of gloom, including the funerary march-beat "The Sharpest Thorn" and the disgrace-in-darkness "Broken Promise Land," The River In Reverse also buoys in celebration of the New Orleans sound. The uptempo "International Echo" is spiced by Toussaint's Longhair-like breaks and drenched in images of how the power of music cannot be denied. "That's a song about how music comes from one city, travels around the world and then rebounds back," Costello says. "I wanted to show the joy of that. I'd never written a song about music before."

Toussaint notes that the entire project was Costello's brainchild. "I was the yes man," he says of the project, which will be featured at festivals acorss the country this summer. "I enjoyed the journey, especially how the tunes would grow from one day to the next. We arrived places. It wasn't just wishbones and feathers everywhere. We took every step with integrity and faith, belief in what we were doing."

Before the hurricane and flood, there were nine recording studios in New Orleans. Only two were in business at the time The River In Reverse was recorded. "It was wonderful [going back]," Toussaint says. "Elvis was insistent about recording the project there. He wanted the authenticity because I'm from there. But we also wanted to show that there's life in the city, that this isn't a total dead zone."

Costello experienced the city in a different way. Going to New Orleans wasn't a homecoming, but a shock of reality. "It was emotional," he says. "You arrive at an empty airport and then see blown-down signs everywhere. The first day I was there I walked around the streets and all the franchise businesses were closed. They'd just left town. Local businesses were struggling to keep going because of a lack of patrons. The first day at Piety I asked my driver if it would be too morbid to drive me to where the flood hit the hardest. He drove me to where the breach in the levee had occurred in the Lower Ninth Ward. It was horrifying seeing the destruction at eye level after having seen it through a television lens."

Toussaint adds, "We'll all be coming back. Elvis wanted to bring that musical life into the album. That was the thing to do and he followed through on it. It was the right thing to do, to breathe life into the area."

It's a first step, though Toussaint is a realist. He soberly says, "It's going to take a lot of money to rebuild, but it'll also take a lot of guidance. You can't just take the money [for rebuilding], throw it out there and see where it winds up."

But he remains hopeful about New Orleans' revival. "The city is the cradle of American music," Toussaint says. "Babies are still being born, they'll pick up a trumpet and tap into the tradition, and the music will prevail."

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DownBeat, June 2006

Dan Ouellette interviews Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint about The River In Reverse.


2006-06-00 DownBeat cover.jpg


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