Album of the Week 48-2015: Allen Toussaint – Southern Nights

Two and a half weeks ago, one of the few true legends of music still alive passed away. Allen Toussaint almost single-handedly created New Orleans’ R&B sound and though he is primarily known as a composer, arranger and producer, he made a couple of excellent records under his own name. The two records he released when signed to Reprise, ‘Life, Love And Faith’ and ‘Southern Nights’, are nothing short of spectacular. The latter is sort of a mission statement for Toussaint. And a masterpiece of masterfully crafted, laidback, Jazzy New Orleans Funk. A record that belongs in any music collection.

As if the music itself wasn’t enough, one look at the credits reveals an all-star cast of New Orleans’ finest musicians. Most notably: The Meters. Not that the horns have no significance to the sound on ‘Southern Nights’, but the rhythmic backing of The Meters really brings the laidback Funk groove in Toussaint’s compositions to life. The master’s own piano playing and surprisingly understated – for a genre known for its outrageousness – vocal performance confirm the distinct Toussaint signature of the compositions. Even when he experiments with keyboards or effects, there’s no mistaking who we’re dealing with here.

Of course, the key moment on ‘Southern Nights’ is its title track. It would become a hit for Glen Campbell not much later, but the original with its lush keyboard arrangement and flanged vocals is the ultimate version. The atmosphere is unparallelled. It’s also interesting to hear how the song slowly reveals itself through several interludes before it actually begins. The slow reveal is part of the entire album’s charm: you’ll have to hear the seemingly simple Funk of opening track ‘Last Train’ a couple of times before you actually realize how complex the song really is.

In a way, ‘Southern Nights’ is quintessentially seventies: R&B records used to be collections of singles in the sixties, but this album has a few deep cuts that are even more impressive than its better known inclusions. ‘You Will Not Lose’, for instance, which builds upon a jumpy melody and bass line that truly enforces the positive message of the song. Closing track ‘Cruel Way To Go Down’ is extremely moving with its slow groove and desperate Blues feel, while ‘Worldwide’ stands out due to its Funky stomp, Boogie feel and awesome dual lead vocals. ‘Country John’ and ‘Basic Lady’ are nice and funky, while ‘Back In Baby’s Arms’ is a lesson in how to work toward a climax.

Everyone who is interested in Toussaint’s work as a producer and songwriter will have to listen to ‘Southern Nights’ and ‘Life, Love And Faith’ at least once in their lives. The – very pleasant – risk is that you’ll end up listening to it more than once, because both in terms of performance and composition, this is top notch material. ‘Southern Nights’ is a work of art by someone who has found a style of his own that he’s very comfortable with and has set out to make the best possible work within that style. It doesn’t matter if you like Jazz, Soul, Blues or Funk: they’re all represented here in an irresistible manner.

Recommended tracks: ‘Southern Nights’, ‘You Will Not Lose’, ‘Worldwide’, ‘Cruel Way To Go Down’

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