Wall Street Journal Review: Toussaintville by WILL FRIEDWALD -- 6/13/13
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What's in a name? "Swingadelic"—a relatively compact big band, with three saxes, four brass and four rhythm—is an astute handle for this swinging orchestra with a distinctly 1960s vibe. The group's last album, "The Other Duke," celebrated Duke Pearson, a soul-jazz composer with pop leanings. Its new release, "Toussaintville," does the same for the legendary New Orleans songwriter. Allen Toussaint's work is favored by pop and blues artists, but not enough by jazzmen), a situation that this package will surely remedy. Swingadelic specializes in reinterpreting hits (both vocal and instrumental), like Mr. Toussaint's "Java," in a way that shows funk and swing are more closely related than many might suspect.
It's been argued in these very pages (see Eric Felten's "How the Taxman Cleared the Dance Floor," from the Journal of March 17, 2013) that the big-band era was killed not by changing tastes or economics, but because of an ill-advised, if not disastrous, tax law. Had it not been for the dread "cabaret tax," big bands would have continued to evolve after the war as they did before it. There's little doubt that the big-band format would have been more widely assimilated into R&B and even rock 'n' roll. Look at Ray Charles and James Brown, who employed traditional brass, reeds and rhythm sections. Or try to imagine the Motown operation without the big-band sound.
Crossing over was hard enough. But some managed to do it. A lifelong resident of New Orleans (at least until Hurricane Katrina forced him temporarily to New York), Allen Toussaint is one of few traditional songwriters to enjoy widespread success on the pop-music landscape of the past 50 years. Mr. Toussaint's songs are primarily known as hits for artists other than the composer himself—a radical idea in the post-Bob Dylan world, when most pop artists are expected to write everything they sing. His chart hits and classic tracks for performers as diverse as Boz Scaggs ("What Do You Want the Girl to Do?"), Glen Campbell ("Southern Nights") and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band ("Get Out of My Life, Woman") reveal a multilayered diversity that can only occur when singer and songwriter are two different people.
Swingadelic's new album pushes that idea along. Lee Dorsey's 1969 hit recording of a Toussaint classic, "Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky (From Now On)," is surely one of the early national anthems of the funk movement. Like several tracks on "Toussaintville," Rob Susman's arrangement of the song utilizes elements of baroque style and counterpoint, as if to say, "Everything we play gonna be fugal from now on." Also associated with Lee Dorsey, "Workin' in a Coal Mine" ranks alongside Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang" as taking the most extremely undesirable states of existence and making them danceable. It's one of many vocals tracks by Swingadelic's pianist, John Bauers, who conveys that singular combination of weariness and readiness to party that the lyric requires.
"Up the Creek" is a rare Toussaint waltz, and inspires an especially fluid clarinet solo by Audrey Welber, as well a growly trumpet solo, and "Ruler of My Heart" features a passionate vocal by Queen Esther. Still, the closest the Toussaint songbook comes to a truly romantic ballad is "Get Out of My Life, Woman." Despite Queen Esther's excellent singing, this is a catalog more for an ensemble than a star vocalist, more of a band book than a songbook. In case you're wondering how Swingadelic's leader and bassist, Dave Post, was able to find the energy to pull this off, the answer may be found in Mr. Toussaint's two biggest hits: "Java" and "Whipped Cream" (perhaps the two most popular instrumentals of the 1960s). Clearly, everything gonna be caffeinated from now on.