The city of New Orleans is riding high these days. With the beloved football team winning the Super Bowl, a new mayor promising a brighter future, a rebuilding of structures and economy, and a new HBO television show, Treme
, extolling the virtues of the unique culture of this musical mecca, times could not be better for the 41st Annual Jazz & Heritage Festival. Like its famed cuisine, this huge music marathon offers a gumbo of sights and sounds; a diversified assortment of styles ranging from jazz to blues to gospel to rock, and everything in between. The local population is proud of its heritage, and tourists are flocking to discover the attributes of music seemingly embedded in the soil...second-line parades, zydeco bands, and Cajun dance troupes open doors to an entertaining Petri dish of musical styles. During two weekends in late-April and early-May, spanning about a dozen stages, the second oldest horseracing track in the country comes alive with a bountiful assortment of musical talent, sprinkled with areas displaying art, crafts, food, and culture, both regional and international. In a single afternoon, one could sample numerous exotic flavors...spicy jambalaya, cochon au lait po'boys, and crawfish monica, while strolling through art exhibits, blacksmith demonstrations, and even taking a ride on a folk-art inspired merry-go-round built by a Cajun woodworker.
However, it is the copious and high-energy music which takes centerstage. There is so much offered, and most of it is top quality. Within moments during a brisk stroll through the fairgrounds, one can catch funky brass from Trombone Shorty
, the elegant jazz from one of the four Marsalis brothers, listen to old and 'older' classic folk-rock from the iconic duo, Simon and Garfunkel, or dance so animatedly at the fais do-do stage that the sugary white powder from the beignets will be shaken off your shirt. The trick is to dance to the music without spilling a drop of your rosemint iced tea...not an easy task.
There was a plethora of highlights at the festival this year, including several powerful tributes to recently-deceased local blues legend, Marva Wright. Here are some of the knockout performances:
"When The Saints Go Marching In" took on new meaning because of the success of the football team, and jazz giant, James Rivers, added a new wrinkle, playing a quirky version on bagpipes, mixed with snippets of "Amazing Grace" and "Hava Nagila," which means 'let us rejoice.'
The 100th anniversary of Louis Prima
was celebrated in high-stepping style, with separate sets by his son and daughter, and a wonderful tribute from Bobby Lonero, former guitarist with the maestro. The most heartfelt performance was turned in by Prima's former partner, Keely Smith
, looking resplendent in a bright red jacket and her signature pageboy haircut. At age seventy-eight, she charmed the audience with nice renditions of "Up A Lazy River," Let The Good Times Roll," "That Old Black Magic," and "Jump Jive And Wail." Her voice was as strong as a hurricane, and her phrasing was like finely-cut glass.
Ex-Band drummer, Levon Helm
, recently famous for his Woodstock Midnight Ramble sessions, in his barn in upstate New York, enthusiastically led a stellar group of rhythm and blues musicians, including former Bob Dylan
guitarist, Larry Campbell. This was a marvelous show, with pure versions of New Orleans chestnuts such as "Such a Night" (with help from pianist, Dr. John
), and "A Certain Girl" (performed with another titan on the keyboard, Allen Toussaint
). The horns, led by Howard Johnson, blared fervently, and the tight rhythm section chiseled away at classic R & B melodies. The set reached an apex with a gorgeous version of The Band's "The Weight," as Levon flung his drumsticks into the crowd.