DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross.
Booker T. Jones and Allen Toussaint helped create the soul soundtrack of the '60s and '70s. Jones led Booker T. and the MGs, which was not only the house band for Stax Records, but scored seven Top 40 instrumental hits.
Today, we'll feature Terry's 2007 conversation with Booker T. But first, a look at new solo albums from Booker T. and from Allen Toussaint, who worked as a songwriter, producer and pianist on a host of recordings, including hits for Lee Dorsey and the group LaBelle. Critic Milo Miles has this review of both new recordings.
MILO MILES: Every time a veteran performer releases a new record, he or she faces a basic challenge. Unless you want to be a mere nostalgia act, how do you make yourself sound either timeless or contemporary?
If you're a singer, it's easier. Choosing apt modern material can do half the update for you, but pop instrumentalists often fall flat if they try to sound with-it and tired if they run through the same old thing.
Unlikely as it seems, two venerable keyboardists, Booker T. and Allen Toussaint, have both met the challenge. On "The Bright Mississippi," Toussaint sounds eternal as New Orleans, and on "Potato Hole," Booker T. pulls his grooves right into today.
The key with Toussaint is that he's finally made a solo album that reflects all the facets of his New Orleans background.
(Soundbite of music)
MILES: In the '60s and '70s, Toussaint made a series of good but uneven albums that included a lot of what he calls boogie-ing and woogie-ing. And on "The Bright Mississippi," his hepcat style makes a welcome curtain call on Thelonious Monk's title tune, of all things.
Producer Joe Henry assembled a backing group fluent in jazz and comfortable with pop vernaculars, including Don Byron on clarinet, Nicholas Payton on trumpet and Mark Ribot on guitar.
While most numbers on this set come from the jazz canon, they are constantly articulated with blues and gospel accents and served up with the unmistakable slow cooking of New Orleans. Whether Toussaint's reworking Ellington, Sidney Bechet or Django Reinhardt, he infuses the numbers with his own elegant funk, particularly evident in his piano work, never so varied and flowing.
(Soundbite of music)
MILES: Toussaint hadn't made a solo album in 10 years, but Booker T. had been away from the scene for almost 20, which makes it even more surprising that he's got the more up-to-date sound on "Potato Hole." This album shows the advantage of first listening without knowing who's playing.
How did he make this version of the MGs sound so sprightly and slyly funky? Turns out the backing band is the Drive-By Truckers, a well-respected, youngish Southern-rock group. And who's that doing the piercing guitar solos that blend noise and blues so well? Turns out it's Booker T's old buddy Neil Young on nine of 10 tracks. He leads the charge here in "Native New Yorker."
(Soundbite of song, "Native New Yorker")
MILES: There were no guarantees with this collaboration. Neil Young was only so-so playing with Pearl Jam a while back, and a couple years ago, the Drive-By Truckers failed to connect well with revived veteran soul singer Bettye LaVette.
On "Potato Hole," however, everybody's instincts work in harmony, right down to brilliant covers of the deep-South hip-hop of Outkast and Tom Waits' "Get Behind the Mule," the perfect newie-oldie-newie.
(Soundbite of song, "Get Behind the Mule")
MILES: I've never liked the term comeback because after a while, big players can never come back to what they were. What performers and fans can do is keep the faith. If the talent survives and the effort is made and the stars align, the grateful crowds should be there to listen.
DAVIES: Milo Miles lives in Boston.