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Courtesy of Nonesuch Records

June 28, 2016

TEST SPIN: Allen Toussaint — American Tunes, Robert Glasper — Everything’s Beautiful

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In late May, Robert Glasper released his Miles Davis tribute album Everything’s Beautiful, and several weeks later Nonesuch Records issued the late Allen Toussaint’s American Tunes. Glasper and Toussaint are both prolific jazz pianists, and the two albums are distinct depictions of their creators’ vastly differing musical styles. Yet, American Tunes and Everything’s Beautiful share a complementary sense of profundity in their thematic questions and inspirations.

In American Tunes, Allen Toussaint explores a number of styles that exist within jazz and covers songs by various other influential artists, including Duke Ellington and Bill Evans. The first two tracks of the album, “Delores’ Boyfriend” and “Viper’s Drag,” are jovial, possessing a New Orleans Jazz quality. This style includes some of the early instances of jazz music, and Toussaint plays each melody assuredly and faithfully. It is a gritty return to the aesthetic roots of an American genre. However, by the fourth track of the album, “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” the clunky New Orleans ragtime stride and novel dominant-seventh chords yield to more wistful and dissonant sounds. “Lotus Blossom,” the fifth song, moves at a lackadaisical pace and features an emotional saxophone solo by Charles Lloyd. During this period of mellow and more “modern” jazz, the former pieces’ tone begins to feel somewhat ironic and out of place. Nevertheless, Toussaint again lifts the mood and includes several blues tunes, such as “Big Chief” and “Rocks in My Bed,” the latter of which features a powerful performance by vocalist Rhiannon Giddens. Yet, this second uplifting tone culminates in “Come Sunday,” a sobering and sentimental spiritual.

The final two pieces of the album, “Southern Nights” and “American Tune,” share the same message, despite the former being entirely instrumental and the latter a vocal feature. “Southern Nights” is Toussaint’s own composition. It is upbeat, but it does not possess the same novelty as do the first tracks of the album. Optimism may best characterize the tone of this track, and Toussaint’s somewhat ambiguous harmonic structure and driving rhythm seem to indicate a nostalgic passing of time. The last track, “American Tune,” a cover of a Paul Simon song, is the only track that includes Toussaint’s vocal skills. “American Tune” is Paul Simon’s reaction to the Watergate Scandal as he attempts to document public insecurity in the United States during the 1970s: “And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered/I don’t have a friend who feels at ease … Still, when I think of the road we’re traveling on/I wonder what’s gone wrong.”

Toussaint’s performance is emotional and reflective, and the track asks the same question that the entire album ultimately implies: What is the American tune? Toussaint brings the listener through a cycle of emotions and harmonic affects that span various styles of jazz. Any one of these styles, whether novel New Orleans swing or crying blues, might accurately capture a once present American feeling. Toussaint concludes that, while life may have been vaguely simple at a given point in the past, American living has developed into a complicated and often conflicting culture of values and needs. A more accurate iteration of the previous rhetorical question might be: Is the American tune a happy song? Or, was there ever one American tune?

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Courtesy of Legacy Recordings

Similarly, Robert Glasper directly draws upon past influences on Everything’s Beautiful; in this case, Miles Davis. Robert Glasper recently composed several pieces for Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead, a biographical film about Miles Davis’ career. Glasper received complete access to Columbia Records’ collection of Davis’ studio recordings, and many of the songs he created for Miles Ahead and Everything’s Beautiful emphasize and sample remixed covers of these recordings.

Everything’s Beautiful is comprised of Glasper’s signature and innovative blend of jazz and hip-hop and features a number of vocalists including Erykah Badu, Bilal and Laura Mvula. Many of the songs deal with love and hate, discord or the external pressure of coming of age. In addition to the direct samples, each composition models the musical fluidity with which Davis composed and played. In an interview with The New York Times, Glasper said, “I’m obviously influenced by Miles Davis — even just the psyche of how he thinks about music… how he moves through, and always wanted to reflect the times that he’s in. That’s what I’m doing now. He opened that door.” The entire development of Everything’s Beautiful feels like a cerebral journey that an artist like Davis or Glasper endures in creating music. On “Violets,” vocalist Phonte Coleman raps about one’s attempt at meditative introspection during violent and turbulent times. His lyrics are placed over a sampled piano progression from Davis’ “Blue in Green,” as featured on his quintessential 1959 album Kind of Blue. The original composition is similarly pensive, despite lacking lyrics. Although he has production credits on every track, Glasper himself only plays on one track, “Milestones,” a remix of Davis’ song of the same name. On the track, Glasper plays a frenetic piano solo that tests the progression’s harmonic boundaries; it is a similar brand of improvisation that can be heard on his earlier albums, such as 2015’s Covered.

Both Allen Toussaint and Robert Glasper looked to musical precedent when they produced their albums. Toussaint included buoyant, antiquated tunes that paired ironically with the more dissonant tracks on American Tunes, suggesting that the American public is currently feeling more in line with the concluding uneasiness inherent in Simon’s 1970s hit. Likewise, Glasper decodes the melodies and tones of Miles Davis’ twentieth century work, adding contemporary themes that blend flawlessly with Davis’ own ideas. If Toussaint is questioning the American tune, then Glasper answers with Everything’s Beautiful. Perhaps internal artistic and social fulfillment is crucial during uneasy times, and this process in itself makes for a dissonant, yet beautiful tune.

Nick Swan is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at nswan@cornellsun.com. 

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