Here’s a bang-up-to-date December 2008 clip of him on fine form at the Duc des Lombards in Paris.
Toussaint’s life story to date takes an unconventional path trodden by no other musician. Originally from St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, his career had lift-off. Studies at Berklee College in Boston led him to one of the most coveted elite positions in the world of jazz: in 1982, around the time of his twenty-second bithday, he became a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He was to prosper in that role for another five years. In this picture he’s on the left, with Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison and Lonnie Plaxico.
But thereafter if there is a predictable pattern to Jean Toussaint’s life, it is that he has never conformed to any stereotype.
In the late 1980’s he chose to make his home in North London, rather than stay in the US, and that is our huge gain.
His choice of the pianist for his quartet again kicks away the stereotypes. In some quarters in jazz runs a rather sterile debate as to whether black musicians have a feel, a rhythmic sense unavailable to white musicians. Well, Toussaint’s sparring partner on piano is white, and from right here in London: the excellent and ever-fresh Andrew McCormack. Toussaint and McCormack together are completely alert and alive to each other’s playing. Their constant interplay of rhythmic challenge and counter-challenge makes for an exhilarating collaboration.
On stage, as you can see from the clip, Toussaint is in constant movement. His shoulders are always rotating, like those of a swimmer, or like someone in a hurry to get through a bustling crowd of people. There is a directive energy, a forward motion to the lines of his phrasing – sometimes with the shoulder movement, often in opposition to it. Rhythmically, harmonically, in phrasing there is a logic, a constant organic development in his playing which has subtle strength and complete individuality. The combined experience of watching and listening has to be experienced.
Pupils tell me that during lessons the intensity of his focus on his raw materials and on the method of the improviser – sonority, rhythm, listening, transcribing solos, finding patterns – is quite unbelievable. And yet there is nobody more able to relax, to be completely calm, balanced and utterly impressive, when – for example – entering into a conversation about the grounding and the joys that come from good relationships with teenage children.
Jean Toussaint has performed at the absolute highest level, and has gone on from there. He has developed his unique voice with both patience and passion.
You won’t want to miss a note.