Allen Toussaint joked at Ronnie Scott’s about needing a translator when he leaves New Orleans because no one understands a word he says. Of course it was nonsense.
Toussaint doesn’t need a translator – he is one himself. Few have done more to popularise his home city’s music. In the 1960s and 1970s, as a songwriter, producer, session pianist and solo performer, he updated New Orleans’ traditions of street parades and R&B for the new age of soul and funk. He has worked with numerous Crescent City musicians, the likes of Dr John, The Meters and Lee Dorsey, and collaborated with many out-of-town admirers, from Elvis Costello to Paul McCartney.
At Ronnie Scott’s it was just him, in a funky multicoloured jacket, and a piano. The opening was pure New Orleans, with Toussaint, 76, setting up a jaunty piano boogie and singing with an attractive Big Easy drawl: “There’s a party going on … ” An entertaining tour through a remarkable half-century of songcraft ensued.
Toussaint was an affable guide, and his songs, whether written for others or himself, came across as infectiously good-natured too. “Sneaking Sally Through the Alley” was comical blues about thwarted infidelity, while the tale of hard grind related in “Working in a Coal Mine” was leavened by Toussaint’s upbeat piano-playing, the song merging in a medley with the jokey call-and-response routine of “Mother-in-Law” and the witty “Fortune Teller”.
His vocals sounded impressively sturdy, given his age, while his piano-playing was deft. An extended instrumental showed off his skills, interposing the blues traditions of his great New Orleans precursor Professor Longhair with passages of classical music. Styles ranged from heartfelt romantic numbers to bayou funk. Stories were sketched with the lightest touch: “Lipstick traces on a cigarette/Every memory lingers with me yet.”
An attempt to whip up carnival spirit in “Mr Mardi Gras” was pure supper-club hokum, Toussaint interrupting the song to hand out masks and umbrellas to the seated audience. Some New Orleans spontaneity spilled over, however. An audience member took over the vocals for “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues)” and later another pianist joined him to improvise a fast boogie-woogie duel.
But the centrepiece of the evening was reflective – a touching version of “Southern Nights” incorporating a tender reminiscence of Toussaint’s childhood visiting relatives in the Louisiana countryside. A breeze blowing on a warm evening, the family out on the porch, Toussaint’s long-dead relatives talking in an impenetrable Creole dialect and playing music – all this translated to London 70 years later as though we were there too.