Allen Toussaint Festival Tent, Halifax NS, July 11

Allen Toussaint Festival Tent, Halifax NS, July 11
Photo: Lindsay Duncan
"This is my first time here, and this is the most beautiful place," Allen Toussaint told the Halifax Jazz Fest crowd. "Y'all been hiding out on me."

Yeah, yeah, it's standard banter, and to a crowd eager enough to give a standing ovation simply for the band walking on stage, it obviously played like gangbusters. But, man, did those words sound deeply genuine coming from the mouth of this New Orleans R&B legend. With his deep, gravely voice, million-dollar smile and sharp purple suit, the man cast a welcoming-yet-imposing presence before he had even played a single note, and from that point forward he had the Festival Tent crowd in the palms of his piano-tickling hands.

If anything, Toussaint's hold over the audience only tightened as his 90-minute set progressed. After running through a set of songs that included "It's a New Orleans Thing," "Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley" and "Yes We Can Can," he then launched into a medley containing some of his best known compositions: "A Certain Girl," "Fortune Teller" and "Working in the Coal Mine." As he bounced from melody to melody, it was fun to watch members of the crowd recognize the songs — most likely due to their plentiful covers throughout the pop and rock canon — and greet each twist and turn with applause.

But as warm and wonderful as Toussaint's singing voice is, I found the instrumental selections at the show's midpoint even more compelling. With playful impatience, Toussaint leapt not just between melodies but entire styles, weaving together classical, jazz, rock, R&B and ragtime into a smorgasbord of musical history. You felt like the man could play anything, and the 76-year-old offered little evidence to the contrary.