He may have lost his home, his possessions and 40 years of important music memorabilia. But you won't hear a peep of complaint out of New Orleans flood survivor Allen Toussaint. "For me, it's just a joyous thing to be able to go back now and play in New Orleans," the musical legend says. "It's fitting to be there. My home is being rebuilt. And the city will be better."
Optimism of that order fires much of the music on a stunning new album matching the talents of Toussaint with those of someone who seems to have his fingers in every genre on earth: Elvis Costello. Titled The River in Reverse, the disk filters expressions of anger and frustration over recent events in the city through a sieve of humor and joy. "We didn't want to preach," Toussaint explains. "These are songs, not speeches."
But they never would have been recorded were it not for the wreckage of Katrina and the many musical benefits that came in its wake. In the weeks after the catastrophe last year, Costello and Toussaint kept finding themselves playing together at fund-raisers for the survivors. "Over a seven-day period we were seeing each other almost every day," Costello explains. The two had worked together briefly in the past. Toussaint produced the song "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" on the Brit singer's 1989 CD, Spike, the Beloved Entertainer.
Costello had been attracted to Toussaint's style ever since he was young. As a producer, writer, arranger and sometime performer, the 68-year-old Toussaint has been a key figure in music for more than 40 years. He had a hand in shaping the music of everyone from local New Orleans legends like Irma Thomas, Dr. John and the Meters, to pop names like the Pointer Sisters and Patti LaBelle. It was Toussaint who arranged and produced LaBelle's peak album, Nightbirds, in 1974, which included the original "Lady Marmalade."
Over the years, his songs have been recorded by everyone from Bonnie Raitt ("What Do You Want the Boy to Do") to Glen Campbell ("Southern Nights"). But it was Toussaint's work on the Lee Dorsey hits of the '60s (like "Working in a Coal Mine") that first attracted Costello. "They were different from all the other songs that were called soul at the time," the singer explains. "They didn't sound like soul records from up north in Memphis, New York or Chicago. They had a different approach to rhythm. I'd always associated New Orleans with jazz. I didn't realize there were all these riches there."
In fact, Toussaint's compositions have always transcended the Big Easy's brew of soul, jazz and R&B. His melodies move with their own pop grace. Unsurprisingly, when Costello first thought about proposing the joint project to Toussaint, he considered making a songbook salute to the older star's catalogue. He suggested such an album to his A&R man, Joe McEwen, who, in turn, asked if they could flesh it out with new material. The ridiculously prolific Costello had one piece already: He'd written a song inspired by Katrina ("The River in Reverse") in a scant 10 minutes and debuted it at one of the New Orleans benefits. Costello thought if Toussaint arranged it, it could make a good jumping-off point for a real collaboration. They first tested the waters together with a rewrite of the classic New Orleans tune "Tipitina."
Costello added new lyrics, and together they turned that into the breathtaking new "Ascension Day."
"That broke things wide open," Costello says. The duo wrote three more songs together in about 25 minutes. They had planned to record the result in New Orleans, but when they were to begin the album the city was still closed. So they opted to start in Hollywood. Things were going so swimmingly, Costello and Toussaint were afraid they might finish before they ever got down to Louisiana. But, eventually, things found a slower rhythm, and the pair wound up cutting a significant portion of the music in the devastated town. Once there, Costello wanted to see the worst of it for himself. "The studio was a five-minute drive from the Lower Ninth Ward," he explains. "I didn't feel it was a morbid thing to go. Each of us should see what was there with our own eyes."
Some of the frustration over what he saw shows in the music. "Broken Promise Land" refers to the government's poor response to the crisis. The watery title track seems to, as well, although Costello says he feels it transcends the event. "I'm talking about the general flow towards a world I don't want to live in a world where we're not taking better care of each other," he explains. Probably the strongest political statement on the album — Toussaint's "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further?" — is also the disk's most clever cut. As Toussaint sings: "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."
The wit of those lines underscores Toussaint's relentlessly upbeat attitude. To him, even the diaspora of New Orleans musicians created by the hurricane has a positive side. "These players have become our ambassadors," he explains. "Now they're bringing New Orleans to everyone."