The renowned New Orleans Jazz Orchestra reflects on the wide-ranging influence of the Big Easy's own Allen Toussaint, the legendary composer, singer, pianist, and producer, with the March 29 digital release of Songs: The Music of Allen Toussaint on Storyville Records (physical release is set for April 19). The album features six songs by Toussaint and one associated with him, as well as two original tribute pieces. It also marks the NOJO leadership debut of drummer/artistic director Adonis Rose, who assumed the mantle in 2016 to navigate the 18-piece orchestra out of the troubled waters surrounding its now-departed founder.
Toussaint, who passed away in 2015, left his deepest footprints in R&B and rock 'n' roll. However, he was also a major figure in the development of New Orleans funk; resonated in country music (by way of Glen Campbell's smash hit cover of "Southern Nights"); and, of course, was steeped in jazz. "[It] was in his blood," Rose says. "There's always some connection to jazz: When you're from New Orleans, there's no way around it."
When frequent NOJO collaborator Dee Dee Bridgewater remarked that she'd never heard a big band take on Toussaint's music, Rose was instantly inspired. "I said, 'You know what? Yes. That's a great idea. Let's dig into this and make it happen!'" he says.
The results honor not only Toussaint, but the broader musical culture of his hometown. The iconic "Working in the Coal Mine" does not feature a singer, but the band members make New Orleans shouts out of its well-known lyrics. "Southern Nights" takes on a brass-band street groove, while "Java," a Toussaint-penned 1963 instrumental hit for trumpeter Al Hirt, retains and even amplifies the original record's raucous second-line feel. New Orleanian percussionist Gerald French contributes the original "Gert Town," which he flavors with the music of Mardi Gras Indians.
Toussaint's ballads get attention, too, with help from a powerhouse set of vocalists. Bridgewater brings her vitality to the beautiful "It's Raining" and "With You in Mind," the latter in a duet performance with New Orleans vocalist Philip Manuel. The rhythm & blues staple "Ruler of My Heart" takes on new majesty at the hands of Nayo Jones, NOJO's house vocalist — and a newly swinging energy in its second half, thanks to Rose and the orchestra.
In 2002, Adonis Rose became the founding drummer for the nonprofit, Grammy-winning New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO), the only institution in jazz's birthplace that is committed solely to the music's development. He maintained that position even after moving to Fort Worth, Texas, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, where he taught at the University of Texas at Arlington and established the Fort Worth Jazz Orchestra. Rose moved back to the Crescent City in 2015, by which time NOJO was his steadiest gig — soon to be his full-time one.
For all its uplift of Allen Toussaint and of New Orleans, Songs is also a personal triumph for Rose. Following the controversial departure of founder Irvin Mayfield from NOJO and its subsequent loss of institutional support, he set himself to the fearsome task of rebuilding the orchestra while keeping its sterling musical reputation intact. He succeeded.
"Almost all of our shows since we started back have sold out," he says. "All of the band members, every single last one of them, came back. The musicians who built this organization, put it on their backs night after night, those are the ones that are doing it again now, along with me." Songs thus stands as a monument to Rose's accomplishment.