In 2015, Allen Toussaint performed at the French Quarter Festival for the first time in nearly 20 years. On Friday, he returned posthumously to the 2016 festival, in both spirit and song.
The music of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame songwriter, producer and pianist, who died of a heart attack while on tour in Spain in November, informed multiple performances and events Friday, the second day of the free festival’s 33rd edition.
In the morning, a Toussaint documentary film opened a free miniature film festival at Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carre. On Friday night, the House of Blues was to host an official festival after-party featuring members of Toussaint’s band and a parade of special guests.
On Friday afternoon at the Abita Beer Stage at Woldenberg Riverfront Park, Irma Thomas performed “It’s Raining,” which Toussaint wrote and produced for her in 1962.
On the same stage during the 2015 festival, the song proved to be prescient: Minutes after Thomas sang it, a deluge shut down her set. On Friday, “It’s Raining” was reprised beneath a brilliant blue sky in front of a sun-splashed crowd that packed the Berger Great Lawn. “It’s Raining” followed “Heart of Steel,” Thomas’ 2010 collaboration with the band Galactic.
Blocks away, veteran local keyboardist David Torkanowsky already had kicked off his own mostly solo remembrance of Toussaint at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse inside the Royal Sonesta Hotel.
In the late 1980s, Torkanowsky was a member of Toussaint’s studio band. More recently, he co-produced Galactic drummer Stanton Moore’s forthcoming Toussaint tribute CD, which features Cyril Neville, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, trumpeter Nicholas Payton and a spoken-word piece by actor Wendell Pierce.
Toussaint “is sorely missed,” Torkanowsky said before his set at the Jazz Playhouse. “He was a very big influence on my life and my approach to music. His music is unique because it has the humidity of New Orleans. It’s the soundtrack of New Orleans.”
An overflow audience occupied every seat in the Jazz Playhouse, lined up two-deep along the bar and spilled out into the adjacent courtyard to hear Torkanowsky intersperse songs with stories about Toussaint and associated characters.
He tripped himself up during the Toussaint-penned “Mother-in-Law,” a huge hit for Ernie K-Doe. He got ahead of himself with the lyric, then had to “catch up” on piano. “I’m sorry, Allen,” he said midsong. “Ernie K-Doe gonna come out the grave and beat … me.”
He was on surer footing when the club’s proprietor, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, joined in for the Louis Armstrong standard “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.” The song qualified for this particular show, Torkanowsky said, because he’d seen Toussaint perform it at Preservation Hall.
Mayfield, wearing green sunglasses in the dimly lit club, caressed the melody with burnished trumpet passages over Torkanowsky’s spry accompaniment. Restrained at first, Mayfield built to a big finish with a flurry of notes.
The duo concluded the first set with “Java,” the Toussaint composition that became a No. 4 hit for New Orleans trumpeter Al Hirt. Toussaint likely would have approved of their jaunty rendition.
The French Quarter Festival opens up to its full format of 23 stages on Saturday and Sunday. Chances are, attendees will hear more Toussaint songs before it’s over.
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.