On a dreary afternoon in December, Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello sit astride a grand piano in a Bywater studio, equally dapper, eminently inspired.
Ostensibly, they are posing for a photographer. But with the tools of their trade so close at hand, they cannot resist.
At Costello's request, Toussaint lays his hands upon the keys and conjures a spooky, minor-key variation on the Professor Longhair classic "Tipitina."
Soon Costello joins in. In his ragged glory of voice, he preaches a sermon of queens in waiting and people pleading and no birds singing, alternate lyrics he's titled "Ascension Day."
"We'll all be together," he sings, emoting for an audience of two, "come Ascension Day."
The final note drifts away. A long, pregnant pause follows, until Costello breaks the silence.
"That was pretty, wasn't it?"
Yes, it was. Toussaint smiles, pleased.
He and Costello hail from different worlds. The genteel Toussaint is an icon of New Orleans music, a Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame pianist, songwriter and producer. The brash, British-born Costello first made a name for himself as a scrappy, New Wave songwriter with Buddy Holly glasses, outsized ambitions and a massive chip on his shoulder.
But each possesses an innate gift for plumbing the emotional depths of lyric and melody. And together, they have forged a simpatico partnership.
Costello had long admired Toussaint from afar. In Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, they shared stages at a series of benefit concerts in New York. Costello subsequently resolved to record an album with Toussaint, consisting of classics, long-forgotten gems and fresh collaborations.
Like "Ascension Day," the overall project synthesizes their sensibilities. Costello chose much of the material; Toussaint arranged it. Steve Nieve, the keyboardist in Costello's band, the Imposters, played organ; Toussaint handled the piano. The Imposters rhythm section backs the Toussaint horn section. Costello solos over a foundation laid down by Anthony Brown, Toussaint's guitarist.
They commenced at Hollywood's Sunset Studio in late November, then moved to Piety Street Studio, a converted Bywater post office that narrowly escaped Katrina's floodwaters, for a week in December. Verve Records plans to release the finished album, The River in Reverse, in May.
"Elvis is a scholar of the music," Toussaint said. "He loves New Orleans music, as well as music from everywhere. This will be New Orleans flavor, on an Elvis Costello CD."
Both Toussaint and Costello have orchestrated prolific careers across the spectrum of popular music.
Toussaint is New Orleans music's renaissance man. His 40-year résumé as a producer and songwriter is laden with marquee names and melodies: Lee Dorsey. Irma Thomas. Aaron and Art Neville. Dr. John. The Meters. "Working In a Coal Mine." "Southern Nights." "Java." "Mother-in-Law." "Fortune Teller."
In the late 1970s, Costello, heart on his sleeve and devil may care, delivered urgent, literate dispatches with punkish attitude. He's evolved into a versatile, tireless and much-loved performer and songwriter, writing with everyone from his wife, jazz singer Diana Krall, to 1960s pop composer Burt Bacharach and Sir Paul McCartney.
New Orleans has occasionally factored into Costello's creative process. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band guested on his 1989 album Spike. He dubbed his most recent tour "The Monkey Speaks His Mind," after a song by Dave Bartholomew, Fats Domino's producer and co-writer.
And a young Costello admired Toussaint's songwriting, if unwittingly.
"I now know that I knew a lot of Allen's songs, but I didn't know he'd written them," said Costello, nattily attired in a jacket, tie, scarf and sunglasses, during a break at Piety Street. "I didn't know he'd written 'Fortune Teller' and many staples of the beat groups in England when I was a kid.
"The first records that he produced that really struck me and I got curious about were the Lee Dorsey records, because they sounded so unique. Then the legend of who this person was grew up: Oh, he's the person who wrote that song and that one and that one, and did the arrangements, and produced them. As you get more curious, you get deeper into it."
Toussaint, New Orleans chic in blazer, slacks and sandals, confessed to not being as familiar with Costello's catalog.
"I'm sorry to say I wasn't. I have gotten familiar since, and let me tell you, he has been very busy. Very busy. He's going to be very tired when he gets to heaven.
"And it's quality stuff. He's a very high-quality person, and a very heart-filled person. And he's so wide awake."
Were it not for Katrina, Toussaint might not have discovered just how wide awake.
As Toussaint rode out Katrina alone in the Astor Crowne Plaza on Bourbon Street, Costello was in Vancouver, receiving reports from a friend at the Windsor Court. As the city flooded, Toussaint boarded a school bus to Baton Rouge, then caught a flight to New York City, now his home in exile.
Six days after Katrina, Costello performed Toussaint's "Freedom for the Stallion" at the Bumbershoot festival in Seattle, "just because I felt like it." He closed the set with another Toussaint composition, "All These Things."
A few days later, Wynton Marsalis invited Costello to a benefit concert at Lincoln Center. Costello in turn asked Toussaint to join him on "Freedom for the Stallion." Afterward, the musicians retired to Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, a small venue within the Lincoln Center complex.
"It was just like an after-hours session that you read about in books but you rarely see with musicians of that caliber," Costello said. "Ellis Marsalis and Marcus Roberts taking turns on a piano stool. Wynton would play a chorus, then Cassandra Wilson would get up and sing. Robin Williams improvised a song called 'Red Beans and Condoleezza Rice.' We were there until 4 in the morning, just watching."
The next afternoon, Costello saw Toussaint perform at Joe's Pub, a Manhattan club.
"About halfway through the show," Costello said, "I thought, 'It's time to do this (record).' "
He was even more convinced after the Sept. 20 "From the Big Apple to the Big Easy" benefit at Madison Square Garden, when Toussaint and his band backed a succession of stars, including Costello. The following Saturday, they shared a bill at a benefit sponsored by The New Yorker. Costello debuted a song he'd written that afternoon, "The River in Reverse."
Days later, Costello received a call from a Verve Records executive, proposing a joint album with Toussaint.
"So I wasn't the only one thinking this was a good idea," he said.
Costello and Toussaint blocked out time in early December. Costello enlisted Joe Henry to produce the record. The avant-punk singer-songwriter's successful second career as a producer includes a Grammy for soul singer Solomon Burke's acclaimed 2002 comeback album, Don't Give Up On Me. In 2005, Henry gathered together Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Ann Peebles, Billy Preston and Mavis Staples for I Believe to My Soul, a contemporary record that taps into the spirit of classic soul.
Costello and Toussaint framed their recording as a "meeting," Costello said. "It is a dialogue between people from different parts of the world. At this moment, even the New Orleans people don't live in New Orleans."
The blueprint would not mimic Painted From Memory, Costello's 1998 collaboration with Burt Bacharach.
"We were commissioned to write one song up front, and we liked that so much, we wrote 11 more," Costello said of the Bacharach project. "With this, I began with the thought that in the '50s, Ella Fitzgerald, for example, would do a songbook record. It was not unusual in those days, because very few performers wrote their own songs. I thought, 'Why can't that exist today?' "
The lesser-known songs in the Toussaint catalog appealed to Costello.
"I wouldn't perhaps choose 'Southern Nights' or 'Working in a Coal Mine.' They're great songs, and they certainly don't need to be sung again by me.
"The songs that I love, some are more off the beaten track. Even Allen expressed surprise at a couple of my choices. That doesn't mean they shouldn't be heard again. And when you hear the record, you'll understand why."
Toussaint trusted Costello's instincts.
"He always asked my opinion: Did I think he could do this one or that one well?" Toussaint said. "With his nature, he could do any of them well, to be perfectly frank. I never would have thought of things like 'Wonder Woman,' something I wrote for Lee Dorsey so many years ago. Or 'Tears, Tears and More Tears.' "
For his part, Costello respected Toussaint's arrangements.
"The horn arrangements and background voices are all part of the composition," Costello said. "They're not just things that have been added on, the way they sometimes are in recordings. If you take those building blocks away, you don't have as much. Every element fits together. That gives you strength."
What sets their new renditions apart, Costello said, "is my voice and the personalities of the players on the record."
Those personalities include the horns. Toussaint says he "has to have New Orleans horns all the time." To that end, he recruited Brian "Breeze" Cayolle and Amadee Castenell on tenor saxophones, "Big" Sam Williams on trombone — who, Toussaint said, "is extremely impressive to everyone" — and trumpeter Joe Fox, formerly of 1970s funk ensemble Chocolate Milk.
"He lives in Birmingham now," Toussaint said, "but he is definitely one of us. He has that New Orleans-ism."
Writing together deepened Costello and Toussaint's connection.
"When you co-write songs, you try and open up a conversation," Costello said. "On 'Where Is the Love,' I made the opening statement, then Allen responded. On another one, we literally wrote, change by change, how it should resolve; I had the opening but couldn't seem to close it.
"On another one, Allen came in with a whole piece of music that was already finished and didn't need anything musically from me. So I was the lyricist. We went from never having written together to trying out all the different ways you might collaborate."
Toussaint was impressed with his new partner's work ethic and skills.
"He has such a mind for the music, and he's always about what he does," Toussaint said. "If we were collaborating on something, the next day he would have loads to bring to the table. He's always working on so many things. And not just scraps — he takes things to their completion. He has covered continents, such a wide range. And he's welcome in so many areas."
Toussaint's minor-key "Tipitina," showcased on the recent Katrina benefit CD Our New Orleans, inspired Costello to write fresh lyrics. And so "Ascension Day" was born.
"That's the way music goes," Costello said. "In classical music days, they used to do variations on a theme. As Allen would say, Professor Longhair is the Bach of New Orleans music. 'Ascension Day' isn't better than the original, it's just a variation on the original for the present moment."
Costello says his new compositions "live in the present moment. Which inevitably means they reflect things that have occurred, or what you might feel about those things."
So are they informed by Katrina?
"As Allen said, very wisely, you want to leave space in the material for other people's imaginations. You try to make a song, not a speech."
Still, subtle changes convey much.
"When I wanted to sing 'On the Way Down,' I asked Allen, 'Is it all right if I leave out the word "girl" in the second verse?' Because I'm not meaning it about a girl who's left her neighborhood behind.
"It's pretty clear what I mean," Costello said. "There are promises that need to be kept here (in New Orleans). And if there was ever a moment for a song about dignity, like 'Freedom for the Stallion,' it's now. It's a timeless song. Other songs, like 'Who's Going to Help Brother Get Further,' sound like they could have been written yesterday.
"It's not for me to assume that I have the definitive rendition, but I can take it to some people that haven't heard it."
After he arrived in New Orleans, Costello drove through the 9th Ward, reinforcing the decision to record some of the project in New Orleans.
"It felt right," Costello said. "Although I didn't write any of the material here, to have certain things that you felt or imagined confirmed . . . That drive the other morning? That confirmed it.
"This was always a welcoming city. But I've never known people so ready to talk about their own experience, inevitably because it was catastrophic. People will open up and tell you a lot of history. I've had a lot of interesting conversations just wandering around."
His conversation with Toussaint will likely intrigue fans of both.
"This has been a concentrated collaboration," Toussaint said, "and I'm glad it happened. It's been quite enriching."