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 Blue tarps have been replaced by new roofs.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";

Patti Austin, whose tribute to Ella Fitzgerald was cut short by a torrential thunderstorm, one of three deluges that fell over the two weekends but unable to dampen her re-creation of a Charlie Parker solo on "How High the Moon" the brought down the house after the big band had preceded her with an hour of blues-based pure gold mined from the Basie vault;

Stephanie Jordan's lustrous voice, regal bearing and nuanced interpretations of ballads bringing to mind a young Nancy Wilson as she sang "Here's to Life" (the Shirley Horn, later Joe Williams hit that's been a staple of hers since Katrina) in memory of her uncle, educator and clarinetist Alvin Batiste, who died during Jazz Fest 2007;

Dianne Reeves, whose love of singing is so genuine, continuing to transform stories about her life and family into heartwarming song.

Other audio-visual snapshots likely to become indelible memories:

Patriarch Ellis Marsalis playing the lovely "Wheatland" in tribute to its composer, the recently deceased piano giant Oscar Peterson. Marsalis followed up with the elegiac "Django," which he built to a feverish, double-time pitch, before gently applying the brakes and returning to a stately pace;

Irrepressible drummer Bunchy Johnson kicking it up a notch or two in a tribute to brothers Willie and Earl Turbinton, jazzmen who both died over the past year;

Astral Project, the fusion quartet, celebrating its 30th year together with cuts from a new CD, "Blue Streak";

Voices from the Wetlands, an all-star Louisiana band led by Tab Benoit and featuring Dr. John and Cyril Neville, among others, playing early days R&B dedicated to preserving the rapidly eroding Louisiana coastline (ironically, the group's gig was interrupted by one of those sudden deluges);

Piano Night, which happens on Jazz Fest Monday every year, recently at the House of Blues—a marathon benefit for WWOZ with dozens of greats of the 88s stopping by to tip their hats to the legacies of Professor Longhair and James Booker among others;

Mayfield (again) and trombonist Vincent Gardner matching one another note for lightning-fast note bopping a duet on ""Back Home in Indiana'' at the Louisiana Music Factory, the city's premier record shop, where on off-days free concerts by small bands draw hundreds of listeners;

Marcia Ball at Lafayette Square, an annual free concert at which the indefatigable, hard-rocker singer-keyboardist reminded us that "New Orleans Is a Party Town," but also that "Where Do I Go When I Can't Go Home" reflects a sad truth: many whose homes were washed away in the storm are still extant;

John Ellis and Double Wide, a quartet led by the saxophonist and featuring ubiquitous sousaphone player Matt Perrine, an organist and drummer, the unusual instrumentation exhibiting lots of texture on quirky tunes like "Three-Legged Dance in Jackson Square";

Randy Newman, who earns his living scoring films in Hollywood and has a vast collection of idiosyncratic songs, reprising a couple dozen of them, accompanying himself on piano. His satirical lyrics were delivered in a deceptively deadpan Louisiana-born drawl, his wit razor-sharp. His portrayal of a hapless American tourist trying to defend his country's current leaders before a European audience appalled by recent blunders was priceless.

Tuba Woodshed: Kirk Joseph and Perrine adapting the big horns to modern jazz;

John Boutte, a primarily soul and R&B singer, revealing a captivating voice and delivery and again one of the Jazz Tent's biggest draws;

Tribute to Max Roach, a collaboration by three of the city's premier percussionists—Herlin Riley, Shannon Powell and Jason Marsalis—illustrating the bebop pioneer's innovations as both drummer and composer. Riley grinned like a Cheshire cat throughout the set; me too.

Jonathan Batiste, pianist, singer and Juilliard student, making a triumphant return to his hometown and playing everything from R&B to Rachmaninoff to ragtime—plus a fair approximation of Louis Armstrong's growl on "What a Wonderful World";

Vernel Bagneris' limber-limbed portrayal of Jelly Roll Morton as a song-and-dance man, self- described "inventor" of jazz; card sharp and clothes horse.

The jazz tent officially closed with a jam session of a dozen horns, three percussionists, three drummers and three singers, among others, all creating a heavenly din—a fitting end to another incomparable Jazz Fest.

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 2008: A Photo Essay by Joel A. Siegel

Photo Credit

Joel A. Siegel


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