On the way out of the WWOZ Jazz Tent on the last day of this year’s Jazz & Heritage Festival, it occurred to me that I had just heard the Crusaders featuring Joe Sample and Wilton Felder perform the song “Ghostbusters.” Now this may sound unusual, in fact it probably sounds more than a little bizarre, but it serves to underscore what the jazz fest is really about – musicians performing music, having fun and ignoring categorization. The fest has always proven to be a type of experimental testing ground - a place where artists reunite, are introduced or try something just a little bit different. While “Ghostbusters” certainly falls into the different category, it only served as one tiny example of this phenomenon that is uniquely Jazz Fest.
One needs to only to look at the musicians New Orleans played host to during the two-week spring festival. First, on opening day, Christian Scott makes a triumphant return to his hometown as a leader. Scott, the trumpet-playing nephew of Jazz Messenger alum Donald Harrison, Jr. appeared at the festival last year with his uncle. One year later, as a Berklee student, he comes to front his own group. Now, that’s Jazz Fest.
On the same day, New Orleans’ dean of r&b, Allen Toussaint fronts the Allen Toussaint Jazz Project. Widely known for his skills as a producer and writer of pop favorites like LaBelle’s “Creole Lady Marmalade” and Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights,” appeared in an unfamiliar place, the jazz tent. Here he unveiled the Jazz Project and made an impact on the jazz tent regulars.
A week later, Nicholas Payton performed with Sonic Trance. Think Weather Report, or Miles Davis of the 70’s and you’re there. Sonic Trance is a tribute to the fusion bands of that era. The Grammy-award winning trumpeter cannot be accused of staying pat, as this group of talented young musicians blended psychedelic fusion with a modern jazz sensibility. Judging from the response of the standing room only crowd both inside and outside the tent, we’ll hear more from Sonic Trance very soon.
Perhaps one of the most memorable appearances in recent festival history was that of Herbie Mann as the flautist appeared with Larry Coryell, David “Fathead” Newman and Chuck Rainey in a reunion with some of his former band members. Mann, currently battling cancer, seemed to draw strength and inspiration from his stable mates and the crowds. His condition is such that he had to cancel many other tour dates; Mann wanted to play Jazz Fest. He did and our musical lives were made richer for it. There is something about the fest that transcends explanation. Herbie Mann certainly added to the mystique.
Which brings us back to the Crusaders. Joe Sample and Wilton Felder were the only two original members performing during this reunion, but the crowd was nonetheless entertained. Old favorites like “Way Back Home” punctuated the history that this group made during the 70s and 80s. Adding to the mix were selections from their new studio release “Rural Renewal.” And joining them for a melody of vocal favorites was Randy Crawford whose performance of “Street Life” brought cheers and an ovation from an appreciative crowd. Ray Parker, Jr. – yes of “Ghostbusters” fame – handled the guitar parts and filled in nicely. While I might have wished for another Crusader song to end the set, I must say that the crowd was entertained and that ultimately is the goal of Jazz Fest.
We could argue all day long about whether or not the Crusaders have abandoned their roots or if Nicholas Payton’s Sonic Trance is true jazz, but the point of the fest is to enjoy oneself. And if the atmosphere and spirit that permeate this event don’t move you to have fun, then you’ve got issues that transcend music.
Until next time, see you ‘Round About New Orleans.