Allen Toussaint

Life, Love and Faith(Reprise/Warner Bros. 1972)

Allen Toussaint is one of those musicians who never quite got his due even though he is responsible for an impeccable quartet of early 70s albums beginning with 1970s From a Whisper to a Scream and ending with 1975’s Southern Nights. What makes his relative anonymity even more surprising is that he also was responsible for producing and writing for such New Orleans icons as Ernie K-Doe, Irma Thomas, the Neville Brothers, Meters, Dr. John and Lee Dorsey as well as legends like Otis Redding, Solomon Burke and the Yardbirds, albeit in the form of a B-side. Hell, he even arranged the horn sections for The Band’s 70s output culminating with his work on The Last Waltz. In short, that is too glamorous a resume to be relegated to second string status and Toussaint deserves a reexamination by anyone with even a passing fancy for stoned r&b, the rich musical history of New Orleans  and the footloose and fancy free side of 70s funk. There isn’t any room for navel gazing, meandering jams or pity parties here, Life, Love and Faith conjures the vibe of those nights where the company you keep is close-knit, the nights blur into dawn and everyone involved wrings every ounce of enjoyment from these precious moments where all is good in our collective world. I just don’t want to live in a world where Touissaint doesn’t get mentioned in the same breath as the masterpieces created by Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes and Al Green during the same era. Life is unfair and I’d be a rich man if I had a dollar for every time I was the old man yelling at the clouds about how my favorite albums are beloved by too few souls.

Just take one listen to “Soul Sister” and all of my hyperbole becomes quite literal as Toussaint’s gently hypnotic and irresistibly playful arrangements meld perfectly with a too cool for school refrain of “Hey you with the curly bush on your head baby. You know you are looking, looking looking good, soul sister” that gives way to the choppy seas of a minimal, yet perfect riff that melts into the call and response of a female voice that confidently replies “Thank you brother, thank you baby” as if it completes an equation for the secret to the perfect pickup line in an alternate universe. It grooves and glides in all the right places as if a bacchanalian New Orleans funk session were taking place on an air hockey table as each note elevates it higher and higher in my personal pantheon of songs that epitomize the season of summer.

His expertise in arranging a horn section is evident throughout Life, Love and Faith as the opener “Victims of the Darkness” deals with the darker subject material of the oppressed choosing a violent or non-violent path of protest as a means of achieving their aims. It’s a dire political anthem if taken word for word, but his arrangements make it an almost celebratory moment where the downtrodden are empowered by the divergent paths trailblazed during the civil rights movements. The people can shout out loud or take to the streets and forcefully create a world in their own image and Toussant doesn’t care which way your wind blows as long as your purpose is righteous. Those horns are simultaneously a call to arms and a celebration of free will that drive the message straight into your subconscious.

“Out of the Country(Into the City)” is a stroke of genius that somehow imagines a world where mellow boogie rock riffs mate with New Orleans musical DNA as the incessant guitar hook rises and falls like a day-glo wave as Toussaint shares a simple tale of escaping the hustle and bustle of city living for the country. It’s quite the hippie sentiment as he champions the simple virtues of a crisp gust of wind, the smell of grass and the simplicity of life far from the grit and gasoline fumes. It’s quite the badass ode to country living and beats any longhaired paean to communal living to accompaniment of a mere acoustic guitar. I love that Toussaint’s whole musical career celebrates the city of New Orleans, but takes the time to insert a back to nature anthem. However, that’s the kind of musician, arranger and songwriter Allen Toussaint was during this period of his career. He was a complex artist who wanted nothing more than a good time to be had by all who listened and subtly inserted his political worldview, deceptively challenging arrangements and surprising twists in subject material into each of the four albums that marked him as a profound soul whose music had a depth of soul lacking in most of those who sold far more albums than he.

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