This week we have breakthrough albums from two young artists — one east coast, one west coast — reshaping urban sounds with some sharp social criticism, plus the final album from one of the towering figures of modern American music.
Artist: Allen Toussaint
Album: "American Tunes"
Songs: "Big Chief," "American Tune"
The title, taken from the Paul Simon song that closes this album, tells the story: This is American music, a river running from the pre-Joplin cakewalks of Louis Moreau Gottschalk to Fats Waller to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn to Bill Evans to Professor Longhair — all given remarkable new life through the musical mind and masterful fingers of New Orleans giant Allen Toussaint. As such, it makes for a perfect, if sadly premature epitaph for Toussaint, who died in November at 77 of a heart attack following a concert in Madrid, just weeks after completing these recordings.
Now, pianist and interpreter might be the last of his talents that get mentioned, understandably given his towering stature as a songwriter, producer and arranger. We could spend hours, days just listing the key artists and songs he’s been behind in one or more of those capacities, going back to the 1950s: Ernie K-Doe’s "Mother in Law," Lee Dorsey’s "Working in a Coal Mine" and "Ride Your Pony," LaBelle’s "Lady Marmalade," the Pointer Sisters’ "Yes We Can Can," Herb Alpert's "Whipped Cream," Irma Thomas’ "It’s Raining," the horn charts for the Band’s "Last Waltz" concert, arrangements on Paul McCartney’s "Venus and Mars" album, many works by New Orleans mainstays Dr. John and the Meters, and so on and so on. He was a key force not just in shaping his city’s sound, but swathes of American popular music through several eras.
So it may seem odd to some that what turned out to be his last recordings features just one of his own songs, an instrumental of "Southern Nights," best known in the 1977 No. 1 hit version by Glen Campbell. But it at once shows his relationship to these great legacies of modern music, and properly, profoundly places him in that company.
This is a fine companion to 2009’s "The Bright Mississippi," both albums largely instrumental sets produced by Joe Henry, who also oversaw the Toussaint-Elvis Costello collaboration "The River In Reverse," recorded in New Orleans just weeks after the 2005 flood. As on "Bright Mississippi," Henry brought in drummer Jay Bellerose and bassist David Piltch for restrained, chamber-jazz complement, and this time also enlisted Rhiannon Giddens to sing on two Ellington songs ("Come Sunday" and "Rocks in My Bed"), as well as electric guitarist Bill Frisell, acoustic slide player Greg Leisz and sax icon Charles Lloyd on a few tracks. And Van Dyke Parks not only provided the sharp arrangement for Gottschalk’s 1857 Latin-tinged keystone "Danza," he turns it into a two-piano duet with Toussaint
But it’s Toussaint’s deceptively graceful approach that elevates every piece. As pointed out in the astute liner notes by Tom Piazza, a New Orleans music critic, novelist and one of the writers on the HBO just-after-the-flood drama "Treme," on one hand Toussaint brings a New Orleans tinge, with its subtle funk and delightful flourishes, to such jazz classics as Strayhorn’s "Lotus Blossom" and Evans’ "Waltz for Debby" (somewhat perversely played in 4/4 rather than waltz-time), while transforming such New Orleans standards as Prof. Longhair’s "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" and Earl King’s "Big Chief" (best known from Longhair’s repertoire) into elegant etudes and concisely imaginative sonatas.
The sequence unfolds like a vibrant novel or film. And at the end, Simon’s "American Tune" is epilogue. Here we get not just Toussaint’s piano, but finally his voice, too, conversational and eloquent with Simon’s portrayal of the complex cultural mix of our nation that brought about the music we’ve just heard, born of struggle and perseverance, of fears of dying and dreams of flying, of transitions and uncertainties, of destinations and destinies unknown. Toussaint brought it into his repertoire in the first few years after the flood, one of several New Orleans musicians who latched onto it as a song that expressed what they, and their city were experiencing as they fought to rebound and rebuild. Here, though, as many in New Orleans and beyond still mourn his loss, hearing him sing this caps this final album with a perfect measure of both celebration of a life of music and sadness at its ending. His life was a truly American tune. An American symphony.
Artist: Xenia Rubinos
Album: "Black Terry Cat"
Songs: "Mexican Chef," "Lonely Lover"
As the debate over just what, and who, is America only intensifies, there may be no sharper, more pointed, more witty, more forceful portrait than "Mexican Chef," a new song by Brooklyn’s Xenia Rubinos. And more danceable. If the melting pot is boiling over, she seems to say, let’s take a look in the kitchen. And there, framing the song, she spotlights a vivid picture: "French bistro, Dominican chef / Italian restaurant, Boricua chef / Chinese takeout / Mexican chef." And the nouveau American, she celebrates, has Afro-Latin Caribbean Bachata music as the lively soundtrack — literally in our eateries, figuratively in the nation.
Now that all sounds fun and flavorful, but then she lists dozens of roles by which people of color form the foundations of our country — "Brown walks your baby …. Brown builds your walls …" And tragically, too commonly, "Brown gets shot." This is as hard-hitting and as entertainingly compelling as what Anglo-Sri Lankan artist M.I.A. has done from a nouveau Europe perspective, and in some ways as incisive as prime Public Enemy.
But there is more to Rubinos. Much more. When we reviewed her 2012 debut "Magic Trix," we were quite taken with her eccentric, but strong musical personality. Or personalities, as she could seem a different artist from bracing track to bracing track in a shifting urban mix of R&B, rock, hip-hop, percussive experiments and elements of her Puerto Rican and Cuban heritage. There was a brash confidence to it all, even more so with this return. A sense of assuredness comes through on "Black Terry Cat" in such soulful R&B songs as "Don’t Wanna Be" and "Lonely Lover" that could fit in a playlist alongside Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu, or perhaps some of what Esperanza Spalding is doing these days.
But that’s not at the expense of her eccentricities, her individualism, which shines in the twitchily rhythmic "Black Stars" (drummer and creative partner Marco Buccelli produced the album) and stutter-beat "Right?" both of which would slot nicely as complements to arty Tune-Yards and St. Vincent tracks. On these, it’s as if she’s taken all the sounds and senses alluded to in "Mexican Chef" and crafter songs that express and embrace that nouveau America with flair and fervor.
Artist: Fantastic Negrito
Album: "The Last Days of Oakland"
Songs: "Working Poor (Radio Edit)," "Lost In a Crowd"
From the kitchens of Brooklyn with Xenia Rubinos, we move to the streets of Oakland with Fantastic Negrito. That’s the name under which Xavier Dphrepauless has performed for some time both solo and with his band, before getting some national spotlight last year as winner of the NPR Tiny Desk Concert’s unsigned artist contest. On his first full album since, he’s taken that spotlight and focused it on troubling situations in his Bay Area community and the nation at large, all in a powerful package of poetically energized urban blues.
After a brief spoken-word and street dialogue intro, Dphrepauless launches into the hard-hitting "Working Poor" (the album version uses some coarse language). From there he tours the world he sees with an eye for justice unserved. It’s part Marvin Gaye’s "What’s Going On," part Curtis Mayfield, part Kendrick Lamar and part electrified Leadbelly. The latter’s ‘40s-vintage tale of desolation "In the Pines" appears here, transformed into a from-the-inside tale of homelessness and hopelessness. A different take on that theme comes in the punchy "Lost In a Crowd," a track that also got the spotlight recently when Fantastic Negrito was featured performing it in a scene from the ABC series "Empire," the band joined by the show’s character Jamal Lyon in a hip lounge performance.
Along the way, a couple of interludes using street dialogue help illustrate and punctuate, but the songs themselves paint the vivid picture with dark fire. Throughout, Dphrepauless/Negrito runs through various moods and emotions: he’s angry, determined, confused, motivated, discouraged, in various turns and combinations. All that comes together in the closing "Rant Rushmore," an emotional, soulful summary of what he sees, what he fears and what he hopes.