Toussaint’s ‘Songbook’ a beautiful documentation of solo journey

Allen Toussaint SONGBOOK

Allen Toussaint’s “Songbook” documents his post-Hurricane Katrina work as a solo artist.

Before the flood of 2005 destroyed Toussaint’s New Orleans home, the soft-spoken songwriter, pianist and producer defined himself as a behind-the-scenes guy. He still sees himself that way. But after he took up temporary residence in New York City after Katrina, Toussaint accepted an offer to play solo at Joe’s Pub.

Even before his Joe’s Pub residency, Toussaint was no stranger to the stage. He plays annually at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. At Jazz Fest, he’s accompanied by a stage full of singers and musicians. At Joe’s Pub, he’s alone on stage with a piano.

By September 2009, when “Songbook” was recorded and filmed, Toussaint had been developing his act for four years. The two-disc version of “Songbook” contains 26 songs on CD and 20 performances on DVD. There’s also a standalone CD. It’s all beautifully filmed and recorded.

Toussaint performs a set of his own compositions, the exception being his sly instrumental arrangement of the New Orleans standard, “St. James Infirmary.” Otherwise, it’s Toussaint singing and playing material originally recorded by New Orleans vocalists Art Neville (“All These Things”), Irma Thomas (“It’s Raining”), Ernie K-Doe (“Mother-In-Law”), Lee Dorsey (“Working in the Coal Mine”), Benny Spellman (“Lipstick Traces”), by ’70s soul singer Frankie Miller (“Brickyard Blues”) as well as selections from Toussaint’s earlier solo albums plus a few recent compositions.

Piano being a multi-voiced instrument and Toussaint being a wonderful pianist, he performs lively, complete solo interpretations of music he originally created for multiple singers and musicians. And the spoken reminiscences he adds to “Southern Nights” make his lyrical, even mystical version of the song even more magical.

Newer “Songbook” selections include “It’s a New Orleans Thing,” a homage to Toussaint’s hometown featuring vocal and keyboard impressions of his musical idol, Professor Longhair. Toussaint has more than earned his place alongside the professor. At 75, too, he’s looking forward to the music he has yet to make.