39th Annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival: April 25-May 4

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New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
New Orleans, Louisiana
April 25-27, May 1-4, 2008

It's been nearly three years since the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, and New Orleans is well along on the bumpy road to recovery. If further testimony were required, the Big Easy's 39th annual Jazz & Heritage Festival—the annual rite of spring that refused to be washed out a scant eight months after Katrina—was as good, and popular, as ever over its 10-day run April 25 to May 4.

I was there for all 10 days—12, actually—and kept hearing from locals about progress being made as people returned and rehabbed homes in the many neighborhoods outside the unscarred French Quarter, business district and Uptown. After the Fest, I hopped on a Gray Line bus for a "Katrina tour,' narrated by a New Orleanian whose own home had badly flooded. Progress was evident everywhere—in Gentilly, Mid- City, Lakeview, West End—even in the ruins of the Lower Ninth Ward. Blue tarps have been replaced by new roofs. Gutting of homes continues apace. FEMA trailers are mostly gone. Work on the levees, flood walls and massive pumping stations continues. Volunteers are still flocking to the region to help with rebuilding.

All in all, it was a heartening grace note to an exhilarating week-and-a-half of music.

And what music it was. Those of us who spent most of our time in the WWOZ Jazz Tent were treated to sets by the Basie Band with Patti Austin, Bobby McFerrin with Chick Corea, Dianne Reeves, the Bad Plus and a whole galaxy of New Orleans' own jazz stars. Those who ventured to the giant outdoor stages at the Fair Grounds racetrack vied with tens of thousands of others for a patch of ground within earshot of celebs like Sheryl Crowe, Robert Plant with Alison Krauss, Billy Joel, Dr. John, Tim McGraw, Al Green, Widespread Panic, Stevie Wonder, John Prine, Jimmy Buffett, Santana and the Neville Brothers (back after a three-year absence).

In the Economy Hall tent, traditionalists tapped toes to Pete Fountain, Preservation Hall, and the Dukes of Dixieland while blues lovers opted for Big Jay McNeely, James Cotton, Bettye LaVette, John Hammond, Keb Mo and Kenny Shepherd. Other stages were devoted to gospel, Cajun/zydeco and New Orleans brass bands and Mardi Gras Indian tribes. They call it Jazz Fest, but it's really a celebration of all kinds of American music.

In the Jazz Tent, the most riveting performance—both musically and emotionally—came when trumpeter Terence Blanchard's quintet teamed with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra in expanded arrangements of his Grammy-winning record A Tale of God's Will: Requiem for Katrina and excerpts of the score he composed for the Spike Lee documentary, When the Levees Broke. The haunting music evoked unforgettable images of people suffering after the storm—but also struck hopeful notes about human resiliency, the will to live and rebuild lives in a battered, beloved city.

A close second: the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra—led by another local trumpeter, Irvin Mayfield Jr.— which also played post-Katrina compositions, notably the chant-filled "Hold the Water" and a memorial for 900-plus lives lost, "May They Rest in Peace." NOJO also played more upbeat works by Mayfield, whose writing and arranging skills can pull listeners right out of their seats, and who, like Ellington, knows his players' strengths and composes to show them off to best advantage. The brilliant cast of soloists included Evan Christopher on clarinet; Maurice Brown, trumpet; "Red' Atkins, piano; and Ed Petersen, tenor sax.

I skipped the all-but-irresistible Diana Krall outdoor set in favor of NOJO, and have no regrets. Krall wasn't the only great jazz singer I missed at Jazz Fest, where cornucopias of attractions annually provide constant scheduling challenges for fans. I bypassed Cassandra Wilson's appearance to catch Elvis Costello with a personal favorite, pianist-singer-tunewriter Allen Toussaint. The latter pair's CD, The River in Reverse, is a gem; live, they're even better.

Krall and Wilson notwithstanding, I was no less occupied in the Jazz Tent cheering for a virtual parade of jazz divas. Among those testing my lung power were:

Lizz Wright, whose earthy voice has matured magnificently, bringing Irma Thomas-like sound to original tunes, blues and pop classics like NeilYoung's "Old Man," building each number to a glorious crescendo;

The elegant Germaine Bazzle, First Lady of Song in New Orleans, spreading joy with upbeat treatments of Great American Songbook standards and, after opening up her bag of vocal tricks, imitating muted trumpet and trombone simulating the click-clopping sounds of a horse on Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Surrey with the Fringe on Top";

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