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New Orleans Flow

Stanford Jazz Festival opener Allen Toussaint has re-emerged as a major jazz and R&B influence in the wake of Katrina
CRESCENT CITY TREASURE: Allen Toussaint has helped shaped R&B and jazz for decades. Photograph by Michael Wilson

AS AN R&B icon, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and composer of songs embraced by frontline British Invasion bands like the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones and the Who, Allen Toussaint might seem like a strange choice to kick off the 40th Annual Stanford Jazz Festival on Friday.

But as a pianist steeped in the rhythms and cadences of the cradle of jazz, the New Orleans native's primetime spot at Dinkelspiel Auditorium makes perfect sense. Though Toussaint hasn't often intersected directly with the jazz scene, his latest album, 2009's The Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch), highlights his abiding ties to the jazz tradition.

Instigated by singer/songwriter Joe Henry, the session features Toussaint's supple, easy-rolling piano on a program of preWorld War II tunes such as "Egyptian Fantasy" by New Orleans soprano sax legend Sidney Bechet, Django Reinhardt's "Blue Drag" and Duke Ellington's "Solitude."

Knowing that people would expect him to play funk or New Orleans R&B, Toussaint was initially skeptical about the music Henry proposed. Equally unexpected was the cast of collaborators hired by Henry. Instead of session musicians or R&B players, he brought in a band of singular jazz improvisers, including clarinetist Don Byron, New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Payton and guitarist Marc Ribot. Tenor saxophonist Josh Redman makes a guest appearance on "Day Dream," and Brad Mehldau takes over the piano on Jelly Roll Morton's "Winin' Boy Blues."

"It was quite uplifting and complimentary that he choose such wonderful musicians," says Toussaint, 73, who performs solo on Friday. "It sort of jolted me a little, to see these beautiful old sophisticated standards. I'd never been looked at the way, but I trust Joe. He's a very class act.

"Many of the songs I had never heard before," Toussaint continues. "I've been so busy writing and producing, I hadn't been gigging. 'Dear Old Southland' sounds like something I should know, but I didn't. I had never had to play 'St. James Infirmary' before, but you know it so well you can play it. I think the most beautiful of all may be Billy Strayhorn's 'Day Dream.'"

Toussaint's late-career emergence as a graceful improviser is part of his post-Katrina renaissance as a performer after five decades of shaping American music from behind the scenes. Not that he's ever been shy about the spotlight. Over the years Toussaint has pursued an intermittent solo career, delivering his own songs with mellow authority on the classic 1970s Crescent City soul albums From a Whisper to a Scream and Southern Nights.

But since his early years writing songs for New Orleans R&B stars Irma Thomas and Lee Dorsey, Toussaint mostly expressed himself as a composer, producer and all-around studio wizard whose collaborations encompass dozens of hit singles and albums, such as Labelle's "Lady Marmalade," Paul McCartney and Wings "Venus and Mars" and the Band's "Cahoots."

After his New Orleans house was flooded (he rode out the storm and its aftermath at the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel), Toussaint took refuge in New York City. Through his participation in various concerts staged to raise funds for flood victims, he came into contact with Elvis Costello, and their relationship quickly blossomed into the acclaimed 2006 album The River in Reverse (Verve Forecast). As the first major studio session recorded in post-Katrina New Orleans, the album represented the creative rebirth of the beleaguered city. An extensive North American tour with Costello led to Toussaint's rebirth as a performing artist.

"Katrina and Elvis Costello, those are the culprits responsible for getting me on the road," Toussaint says. "We toured to promote the album and that got me out performing onstage, as opposed to living my life in the studio. It was a reluctant start for me, but it has gotten to be quite rewarding. Being with the people you're always trying to reach, that's what music is supposed to be about."

It's difficult to overstate the reach and influence of Toussaint's music. While most of the musicians who came of age in New Orleans in the 1950s had trouble breaking out of the region until years later, Toussaint's touch turned New Orleans R&B into a global force.

Invigorated by the addition of Eric Clapton in 1964, the Yardbirds covered Toussaint's "A Certain Girl" on the B-side of their first single. And just about every British Invasion band wanted a piece of Toussaint's "Fortune Teller" (a tune covered by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on their Grammy Award-winning album Raising Sand). While his songs proved irresistible for other artists, he created them with particular singers in mind.

"I always wrote directly for the artist, as you would make a dress or a suit," Toussaint says. "If it wasn't for Lee Dorsey, I wouldn't have written 'Yes We Can Can,'" the song that turned the Pointer Sisters into stars in 1973.

Now that he's got a taste of the road, Toussaint doesn't seem eager to give it up. As he explains it, he never decided against touring. He just got very busy doing other things.

"My life took a different turn," Toussaint says. "Life commissioned me into the studio. But I enjoy traveling on the road tremendously. Being a writer, it's quite inspiring."

Fest Bets

Running June 24-Aug. 6, the Stanford Jazz Festival presents a dazzling array of jazz talent, from octogenarian legends to twentysomething stars who are investing the tradition with their own generational vision. Here are five shows not to miss.

1.) Anat Cohen Quartet Saturday, July 2, 8pm; Campbell Recital Hall

While the buzz around Israeli-born reed expert Anat Cohen has quieted down some over the past two years, she has continued to come into her own. Her saxophone playing is often lithe and lyrical, but her clarinet work is inspired. She's joined by her working New York quartet with pianist Robert Rodriguez, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Daniel Freedman.

2.) The Heath Brothers Sunday, July 17, 7:30pm; Dinkelspiel Auditorium

Hailing from one of jazz's most illustrious families, tenor saxophonist Jimmy and drummer Tootie Heath are at their best in each other's company. At 84, Jimmy is a bebop survivor, a consistently inventive improviser and gifted arranger and composer with at least a half-dozen jazz standards to his credit ("Gingerbread Boy" "CTA" and "For Minors Only"). Tootie made an early impression on classic recordings by Wes Montgomery and John Coltrane, and remains an undervalued master. Pianist Jeb Patton and bassist David Wong (taking over for the late, eldest Heath brother Percy) round out the quartet.

3.) Edmar Castaneda Trio Sunday, July 26, 7:30pm; Campbell Recital Hall

Not many musicians can claim to have singlehandedly transformed an instrument into an effective vehicle for jazz, but Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda has done jus that. He's forged a tremendously sophisticated style, full of rippling polyrhythms and bracing harmonies, that draws on an array of modern jazz idioms and various South American folkloric styles. He makes a rare Bay Area appearance with his working trio featuring trombonist Marshall Gilkes and Dave Silliman on drums and percussion.

4.) Yosvany Terry Quartet Plus Guests Thursday, July 28, 7:30 p.m. Campbell Recital Hall

A force on the New York scene for the past decade, Cuban alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry made his U.S. debut at the Stanford Jazz Festival back in 1995, and he's been a Stanford mainstay ever since. Drawing on visionary altoist Steve Coleman's intricate and esoteric musical ideas, he's developed an approach that's steeped in post-bop jazz and Cuban music while sounding utterly unlike traditional Latin jazz. His band features Menlo Park-raised pianist Taylor Eigsti, veteran drummer Deszon Claiborne and special guests.

5.) Joe Lovano and Friends Monday, Aug. 1, 8pm; Dinkelspiel Auditorium

Always looking for new musical settings, saxophone master Joe Lovano, one of jazz's most heralded improvisers, takes full advantage of the festival's wealth of talent with two very different trios. One represents state-of-the-art swing, with the superlative pianist George Cables, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. The other is wry, pounding and iconoclastic, with pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer David King (who perform as the Bad Plus the following night). Whether the groups mix and match, or all join Lovano on stage simultaneously, probably won't be decided until show time.

Allen Toussaint

Friday at 8pm; $35/$40

Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford University

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