From the 1950s through to his death in November 2015, Allen Toussaint was intrinsic to the unique musical culture of New Orleans. He wrote, played on and produced hundreds of records, gave The Meters their start as the in-house band at his studio, and he’s worked with everyone from Paul McCartney to Dr John to The Band.
Toussaint’s sudden passing while on tour in Europe inspired another of New Orleans’ brightest musical stars to pay tribute to the fallen legend. Galactic’s Stanton Moore assembled his trio – David ‘Tork’ Torkanowsky on keys and bassist James Singleton – to record With You In Mind: The Songs Of Allen Toussaint.
Joining them on the album are some of the funkiest players in the business, with Nicholas Payton, Trombone Shorty, Maceo Parker, Donald Harrison Jr, alongside vocalists Kiki Chapman and Cyril Neville contributing to what is an uplifting celebration of Toussaint’s remarkable life.
When we speak to Moore, he’s hurrying to get out of a Louisiana rainstorm while on his way to film another lesson for his online Stanton Moore Drum Academy. From Galactic to his trio to his seminal funk instructional Groove Alchemy, Moore seems to have the distinctive grooves of New Orleans in his very bones.
Has Allen Toussaint cast a long shadow over the music of New Orleans?
“Yeah, definitely. It could be said that he wrote the soundtrack to New Orleans, really. His compositions are just so pervasive; they show up everywhere, and when you went to see him live and he started playing, you realised, ‘Oh, he wrote that?’ And, ‘Oh, he wrote that too?’
"It’s really amazing because he wrote so much for people, things that he didn’t even record himself but he’d play them live. It’s amazing how prolific he was as a writer, but also as a producer and in his own right.”
You worked with him on a few occasions?
“Yeah, we worked with him a few times. He would sit in with Galactic or we’d have him open up, solo piano, and then he would sit in with us. We handed over a couple of instrumental things to him, and he wrote lyrics to them. One of them made one of our records, that tune was ‘Bacchus’ that made Ya-Ka-May, and then ‘Muss The Hair’ was another one, and that was on Ya-Ka-May as a Japanese bonus track.
"I didn’t get to work with him quite as much as I would have liked to, I’m sure we were hoping that we’d work more with him in the future, but it was always a pleasure.”
What was he like to play with? How did he feel time and groove?
“To me, he kind of floated above what was happening. Some guys have more of a sense of a time that digs inside and gets underneath what’s going on. Some players you play with, you feel like they’re supporting you in a way, and the drums have to lock in with what they’re doing.
"With Allen, he always seemed to float on top, which is great because he always colours the music in the way that he writes lyrically and in his arrangements. All the horn arrangements he would do, or background vocal arrangements – he was really incredible at adding to the music in a way that the structure and the rhythm section were there but then he would add colour and vibe and texture, and of course melody and harmony on top.
"That’s the way he would play piano, too – he was adding to what was going on.”
When did you decide to record a tribute to Toussaint with your trio?
“Our intention was to go in and make another record. We had studio time booked and we had tunes picked out, but then once we got the news that Allen had passed, we started to think, well, we should definitely pay homage to Allen in some way.
"There’s so much great material that he wrote or was a part of that the record started falling into place pretty easily. I would come up with the idea of doing ‘Everything I Do Gone Be Funky’ in 5, James came up with the idea of doing ‘Life’ in 7, Tork came up with the idea of having Kiki Chapman sing ‘All These Things’.
"I hadn’t worked with Kiki. Tork said ‘Man, trust me, you’ve got to have this girl on your record,’ so the first time I really heard her sing was when we recorded in our studio. I heard her sing through my headphones while we were playing and the hair stood up on my arms.
“We started thinking for ‘Everything I Do Gone Be Funky’ and ‘Life’ and ‘Night People’ and ‘Here Come The Girls’, let’s see if we can get Cyril [Neville] to come in. It all started falling into place.
"It was almost like sculpting an aural landscape. A lot of times people write out arrangements and tell everybody, ‘This is your part, you sing this part, you play this part,’ but we really sculpted everything as we went along. ‘Cyril sounded great on that, maybe we should think about getting some backgrounds. Who do we call for backgrounds? Let’s call Erica Falls, and let’s call Kiki back and have her and Erica do backgrounds, and let’s get Ivan Neville on here too.’
"For lack of a better description, we really just made it up as we went along. Being in New Orleans, you’ve got access to some of the greatest musicians in the world, and it’s like having the most amazing toolbox at your fingertips, so we had great talent to pick from.
"If you want to think of it as painting a picture, we just had a great palette of colours to draw from and really add to this canvas of this record that we all helped create together.”
So many New Orleans stars – Trombone Shorty, Nicholas Payton, Donald Harrison Jr – appear on the album. How did you pick these guys?
“The way we wanted to do it was not just haphazard, but thinking, ‘Who are some of my favourite horn players coming from a real New Orleans background that I don’t get to see play together, but who would create an interesting texture?’
"That’s why, when I thought I wanted to have Nicholas on the record, then you start thinking, who would be great in a saxophone context with that? Oh, Donald Harrison Jr! Who should we get to play trombone when we’ve got Nicholas and Donald? Well, let’s call Trombone Shorty. Just putting it all together in a way that would be exciting not just for me but for the listener as well.
"Nicholas, Donald and Shorty – I want to hear that!”
Was it a challenge to take tunes like ‘Everything I Do Gone Be Funky’ and ‘Life’ and keep them grooving when not played in 4/4?
“What’s cool is that David and James and I have been playing in 5 and 7 a lot. We’ve been playing ‘Magnolia Triangle’ and ‘Dee Wee’, and occasionally I would start playing things that I might play in funk, so stuff on the hi-hat that might be influenced by Zigaboo, stuff on the pandeiro and the cowbell where I might have been trying to approximate Mardi Gras Indian stuff, or stuff on the snare drum where I’m trying to blend Herlin Riley and Johnny Vidacovich.
"Even though ‘Magnolia Triangle’ is more of a jazz tune, over the course of playing this a lot and doing different things to it, when we went to play ‘Everything I Do Gone Be Funky’, I already had a whole bunch of ideas of funky stuff to play in 5. We’d been playing ‘Paul Barbarin’ in 7, there’s a tune we do called ‘Oasis’ in 7 which goes into Afro-Cuban and funk, so I had a lot of ideas already together in 5 and in 7, and when it came to apply them to these Allen tunes, we were already comfortable and we just made it funkier.
“Cyril was a really great sport – every musician in New Orleans considers Cyril Neville to be one of the greatest soul singers of all time, but I don’t know if he’s ever sung in 5 or 7, so it’s been amazing to hear him adapt to it, and it’s been very cool of him to be willing to do that. It’s fun for me to hear it, and hopefully people who are checking out the record are digging on all that as well.”
You tackled ‘Riverboat’, an old tune recorded by Lee Dorsey with James Black drumming on the original track!
“Part of the legend around that tune is Allen had a few different drummers come in, and he wrote out a very specific part that’s pretty linear. At that time, in the early 60s, not a lot of drummers were used to playing that way, so Allen finally called James Black to come do it.
"James Black laid it down in one take and said, ‘What else you got?’ Tork and Singleton had played with James Black – we all hold him in very high regard, we play a lot of his compositions – so it just seemed to make sense to play this legendary tune that James played and do our own take on it.”
Where did you record and on what drums?
“Parlour Studio, a great studio in New Orleans. I was in the main room, bass was in an iso room and piano was in an iso room as well. I played a 12", 14", 18" bop kit, USA Custom.
"I intentionally wanted to make things a little bit more on the jazz end of the spectrum, but things wound up turning into some pretty funky, heavy stuff on ‘Night People’, ‘Here Come The Girls’. I’m very used to playing funk with an 18" bass drum.
“I love to play on either an 18" or a 26". The reason for that is on an 18" the beater is playing above the centre of the bass drum and on a 26" the beater is playing below the centre – and either way it’s a timpani approach.
"On a timpani you’re playing off-centre because you’re getting a more resonant sound. When you play the centre of the head – whether it’s a timpani or a bass drum or the snare drum – you’re getting the deadest sound. I like to have a more open sound, and you can get that on an 18" or a 26". This is similar to what I would do with my jazz trio but I add the pandeiro on the left and the cowbell.
"I did use the pandeiro a good bit on ‘Night People’ and ‘Everything I Do Gone Be Funky’, so it’s pretty much a bop kit but the bass drum is tuned a little lower than some jazz guys would tune it. Even though I’m playing with a grand piano, upright bass and playing a bop kit, we still dip into some of the New Orleans second line stuff, some of the Mardi Gras Indian stuff, some of the funkier stuff, so I still like to have my 18" tuned a little on the bigger, open, low-end side than some people might tune a bop kit.”
With New Orleans musicians in general – and Allen Toussaint in particular – there’s that ability to freely cross between jazz, funk, and R&B.
“If you want to work in New Orleans, you need to be adept at playing all of those different styles. I would like to think that as I develop, as I get older, I’ve gotten more deft at blurring those lines to where I’m much more comfortable switching from brushes to playing with sticks with my pandeiro and my cowbell.
"It’s all just different colours in my palette now, whereas four, five years ago when I started concentrating more on the jazz, it was a little more delineated. It’s all music, it’s all drums.
"To put together a record that has got four on the floor on it with ‘Night People’ and then 5/8 funk in ‘Everything I Do Gone Be Funky’, and then brushes ballads with ‘All These Things’ and ‘With You In Mind’, if I can make all that work on one record and make it very natural and not feel forced, then hopefully I’m getting somewhere.”
Where do you find inspiration and ideas for your brushes playing?
“That’s a great question. When I finished Groove Alchemy, I felt like I’d put myself through a doctoral program on funk drumming, and after I got done I was like, ‘Okay, I don’t want to do anything like that for a while.’
"About two weeks later I was like, ‘Okay, what next?’ I started thinking I’d like to put the jazz side of my playing through more of a doctoral program, and that included the brush end of things.
"I started going through every brush DVD and book that I could find, but then I started reaching out to all of my drum buddies who are also super into brushes.
“To make a long story short, I’ve had hotel room hangs where we show each other stuff with Steve Smith, John Riley, Russ Miller… believe it or not, Jason Sutter is a great brush player who’s been studying with Jeff Hamilton.
"I would go to Jeff Hamilton’s house and we’d open up wine. As the sun went down I’d say, ‘Jeff, there’s a couple of things I want to show you that I’ve been working on with brushes,’ knowing that I’m inviting myself to the lion’s den. We’d go into his drum room, which is on the second floor of his barn, I’d show him some things I’d been working on.
"He’d be sitting on the arm of his armchair sipping his glass of wine, smiling, ‘That’s pretty cool, you need to get more lift in your right hand and you need to get more snap in your left hand.’ I’ll turn the brushes around and hand them to him and say, ‘Oh yeah? Show me!’ He laughs, ‘Oh, it’s going to be like that, huh?’ ‘Yeah, it’s going to be exactly like that!’
“I just take from all this and of course Florian Alexandru-Zorn – the German guy who has come up with some really interesting approaches on brushes – and I try to figure out how to apply it to what I’m doing.
"Mixing some of Florian’s sweeps with Jeff Hamilton’s sweeps and coming up with how to play all the stickings that I’ve been playing over the years – all of the Johnny Vidacovich stickings and all of my variations. Of course, I went through Ed Thigpen’s book and DVD and there are several other books I went through.
"I just tried to absorb everything I possibly could, and then put my own spin on it.”