A laidback, playful exploration in regional sound, The Bright Mississippi draws jazz back to its roots, pulling together a small collection of standards and seasoning them with potent Dixieland signifiers. Allen Toussaint takes these songs and places them back into the warm bosom of a distinctly New Orleans sound, his easy touch letting them flower in the soil from which jazz first took root. His treatment has a restorative effect, tweaking familiar pieces and making them sound almost new.
Opener “Egyptian Fantasy” takes a composition from Sidney Bechet, another New Orleans resident, and toys with its pace, turning the entire thing into a brassy midtempo funeral march. This is indicative of Bechet’s songs, which are rife with hallmarks of the city’s sound, but don’t cartoonishly exploit them, favoring subtlety over bombast. His take on the traditional “St. James Infirmary,” the final lament of a dying sailor, remains inherently sad, but has a keen sense of buoyancy, removing the words and wiring a creeping piano shuffle to a slow traipse of acoustic guitar.
Entering his 70s, Toussaint expresses all the adroit skill of a master who knows he has no need to hurry, and Bright Mississippi is by consequence a lazy drift of an album, filled with songs that take their time and indulge in careful improvisation. His cover of Duke Ellington’s classic “The Bright Mississippi” is a perfect example, pushing it into a downtempo shuffle with crashing drums, playful keys, and the persistent, squeaky wail of the clarinet. Toussaint gives each of the instruments room to explore, breaking free of the structure of the song and marking it with his own distinctive stamp. It’s this loose, spirited mood that makes the album’s interpretations so smooth and effective. Toussaint may be looking backward instead of forward, but his free rein on these songs is transformative.