THE BLOG

The Joy That Is Allen Toussaint

06/25/2013 09:53 am ET | Updated Aug 25, 2013

Seeing Allen Toussaint perform twice in the space of about 60 days -- in drastically different circumstances each time -- reminded me of why a love for musical roots can seemingly never run out of ways to discover and rediscover the beginnings of American popular music.

Toussaint is 75 and still as spry and soulful as he was during his heyday of the 1950s through the 1980s. Not that Toussaint has ever gone out of style; he has come to represent the New Orleans music tradition in the same way that Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, Ernie K-Doe and Professor Longhair -- and, in different ways, Wynton Marsalis and Louis Armstrong -- also do.

I saw him perform on a sunny April day at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival's Acura Stage -- the largest performance area -- with a big band and backup singers. Then I saw him again two weeks ago, playing a solo show at City Winery in SoHo on a rainy night that was warmed immeasurably by Toussaint's fluidly nimble piano-playing and his mellifluous charm as a singer. I had to go to a screening that night, which forced me to miss the first hour of his show - and still found myself enraptured by the hour of his performance that I did get to see.

Always dapper (sporting a lavishly embroidered white suit at Jazz Fest, a sequined aubergine tuxedo jacket at City Winery), Toussaint has been playing piano behind and writing hit songs for other singers for years. He penned hits for, among others, Labelle, Three Dog Night, Boz Scaggs, the Pointer Sisters, Lowell George, Elvis Costello and Robert Palmer.

His music blends the funky Louisiana R'n'B sound with a strain of blues, filtered through a Tin Pan Alley sensibility. His signature song at both shows -- the tune with which he closed both times -- was Southern Nights, which was a country-pop hit for Glen Campbell in the 1970s. When Toussaint plays it, it has a playful Marvin Gaye-meets-Scott Joplin feel that Campbell could never hope to approximate.

This commentary continues on my website.