The yin-yang aspects of the new collaboration between Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, The River in Reverse, are as plentiful as they are productive.
Costello is British, Toussaint is American; Costello is 51 and white, Toussaint is 68 and black; Costello emerged from England's anarchic punk rock scene of the mid-'70s, Toussaint from the world of New Orleans R&B of the '50s; Costello is phenomenally prolific, Toussaint puts out records as if they were time capsules; Costello's voice is ragged and assertive, Toussaint's is elegantly silky and laid-back.
On paper they shape up as the Odd Couple, yet the album is earning raves for the dynamic blend of two highly respected, though vastly different, musical sensibilities, brought together in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster.
"As politically minded pop goes, it trumps such other 2006 albums as Neil Young's Living With War, if only because it isn't so heavy-handed about its intentions," writes All Music Guide. "But what makes the album rather extraordinary is that it's as much celebration as it is protest."
The Sunday Times of London wrote: "Anyone whose relationship with Elvis Costello stretches back to 1980's Get Happy!! will realize that while many of the man's collaborations stretch his talents, this one capitalizes on them."
"Two great songwriters tackle the aftermath of disaster, coming on like punk soul brothers," said the Daily Telegraph.
Katrina's devastation inspired several of the songs, from the title track that Costello dashed off in 10 minutes a few days after the hurricane laid waste to so much of Louisiana and Mississippi, to the choice of Toussaint's "Who's Going to Help Brother Further." But both musicians say it would be short-sighted to look at the project strictly as a response to disaster.
"I must say that Katrina certainly had a lot to do with the timing," Toussaint said in elegant, honey-soaked tones during a joint phone interview recently while the two were in Tokyo on a promotional tour. "But I'm glad to say it didn't have everything to do with everything we sang and played. We were doing what we love to do, which is playing music."
Costello, too, said he has more in mind than Katrina when he sings the words he wrote in "The River in Reverse": "How long does a promise last / How long can a lie be told?"
"There's a drift in the way we're living, a drift to the selfishness, isolation, fear," he said. "Dire circumstances like Katrina just point it up more."
Initially, though, Costello had an idea that was far more modest than his collaboration with Toussaint turned out to be. After Katrina, he simply thought the timing was right to record a full album of the music of Toussaint, who wrote and produced records for Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, Aaron Neville, the Band and dozens, if not hundreds, of others.
But after singing "The River in Reverse" at Seattle's Bumbershoot Festival last fall, barely a week after Katrina, Costello got the idea to include it and some other original material — and to try writing with Toussaint.
Their first song together: "Ascension Day," which reworks the melody of "Tipitina," an instrumental by celebrated New Orleans pianist-singer-composer Roy "Professor Longhair" Byrd.
"That opened it up, to be a mixture," said Costello, who chose the earlier Toussaint songs that appear on the collection.
""I was surprised to see how much of my catalog Elvis was familiar with," Toussaint said. "Since then, I've come to know how much of the world's music he knows."
Vocally, Toussaint takes a back seat to Costello for most of the album, though if Costello and producer Joe Henry had had their way, it would have had more of Toussaint's voice front and center.
"Allen is way too modest about his singing," Costello said. "To be honest, Joe Henry and I had to dupe him into singing the opening verse" of "Who's Gonna Help Brother Further," a song that laments the promise of liberty and justice for all in the land of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. With a dollop of humor, the lyric, written in the '70s, asks:
What happened to the Liberty Bell
I heard so much about?
It didn't ding dong
It must have dinged wrong
It didn't ding long
"Originally, I was going to sing the first verse, and then Allen was supposed to take it over," Costello says. "I wasn't being sneaky, but I just wanted to hear Allen sing the first verse as a warmup to the second. When he did, Joe and I turned to each other and said, 'That's what we want for the record.' "
Toussaint has long favored a behind-the-scenes role to that of the star.
"It so happens that what I do is something that's not front stage center," Toussaint says. "It's been quite a comfort zone there, and I've been perfectly fine with that. But lately I've caught this speeding train called Elvis Costello."
Adds Costello: "When I listen to the records he worked on that inspired me, I realized that his voice is used in a really subtle way. So I wanted to keep that in these songs."
The slate of about two dozen "River in Reverse" U.S. tour dates, including Sunday night's stop at the Playboy Jazz Festival, extends the teaming to include Costello's longtime associates the Imposters — keyboardist Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher — plus Toussaint's Crescent City Horns and guitarist Anthony "AB" Brown.
Beyond drawing from the 13 songs of the new album, Costello said he's particularly looking forward to reworking other songs from his catalog, tapping Toussaint's famed skills as an arranger.
"We're somewhat in the position that Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko and the guys in the Band were in, having Allen come in and put a new coat of paint on some of their songs," Costello said, referring to Toussaint's arrangements on several of the group's recordings.
"Me and my guys have a pretty firm idea about our musical identity at this point. But I can't wait to try out these songs of ours that Allen has arranged for us."