Every veteran performer who releases a new record also faces a basic challenge. Unless you want to be a mere nostalgia act, how do you make yourself sound either timeless or contemporary? Booker T. and Allen Toussaint have both met that challenge. On their new releases, Toussaint sounds as eternal as New Orleans and Booker T. pulls his grooves right into today.
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." On The Bright Mississippi his hepcat style makes a welcome curtain call. Producer Joe Henry assembled a backing group fluent in jazz and comfortable with pop vernaculars. 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 he's reworking Ellington, Bechet or Reinhardt, Toussaint infuses the numbers with his own elegant funk, particularly evident in his piano work, never so varied and flowing.
Toussaint hadn't made a solo album in 10 years, but Booker T. had been away from the scene for almost 20. This album shows the advantage of first listening without knowing who's playing. How did he make this version of the MGs sound so springy and slyly funky? Turns out the backing band is Drive-By Truckers, a well-respected, youngish southern-rock band. 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 ten tracks. He leads the charge here in "Native New Yorker."
I've never liked the term "comeback," because after awhile big players can never come back to what they were. What performers and fans can do is keep the faith. If the talent survives, the effort is made and the stars align, the grateful crowds should be there to listen.