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While many people look to a small rodent with a phobia about his shadow to determine the start of spring, the music world looks to the annual unveiling of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival line-up as a sure sign that spring is indeed just around the corner. A look at this year’s line-up shows that festival producers are indeed intent on providing something for everyone. And while some of the “Fest-Faithful” have criticized the organizers of the ever-growing event for straying away from its musical roots, one need only look at this year’s schedule to find the tradition, heritage and music that make the Jazz Fest one of the premiere music happenings of the world. Following are few highlights and tips for you the jazz lover. Unlike the 2003 festival, opening day returns to the last Friday in April, the 23rd. In addition to pop and blues favorites Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris, Friday’s line-up features some high-profile jazz talent like Donald Harrison, Poncho Sanchez, Henry Butler and the legendary Olympia Brass Band. Add to this mix local favorites like Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, the Doc Paulin Brass Band and the Southern University-Baton Rouge Jazz Ensemble and you have the makings of a very long and extremely fulfilling day of jazz music. Insider tip – the first day is very popular with the locals and it’s typically a good time to sample the countless offerings of the food vendors. While opening day always has a lot to offer, the depth of performing acts increases each day. Use this Friday to discover something new. If you have not heard Alvin Batiste and the Jazzstronauts, check them out here. While Branford Marsalis provides the big-name star-power on Saturday, April 24th, this day provides some hidden treasures for the adventurous. ReBirth Brass Band has traveled the world, but there is something magical about seeing them perform on their home turf. Clarence “Frogman” Henry takes you back to a time when singers like Jimmy Rushing roamed the bandstand the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA) Jazz Ensemble often offers a glimpse into the future of our music. Insider Tip – Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra is an ambitious exploration into orchestral jazz, patterned after the Wynton Marsalis-led Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. If recent performances are any indication, you will not be disappointed. Also, a number of local performers like Astral Project, Don Vappie’s Creole Jazz Serenaders and the tremendously talented Germaine Bazzle are worth a look. The first weekend wraps up on Sunday, April 25th with enough music to send you away satisfied, but eagerly waiting for the next weekend. Featuring Ray Charles, Dr. John, Etta James and Jonathan Butler, this Sunday will keep you busy juggling schedules. Adding to the local flavor will be Ellis Marsalis, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Jason Marsalis, and piano-man Eddie Bo. Insider tip – Kermit Ruffins and the Barbeque Swingers – a must! This is a group of jazz musicians who perform and know how to have fun in the finest tradition of New Orleans performers. If you like New Orleans trumpet players, by the end of this set, Kermit will be among your favorites.
Thursday, April 29th is another one of those days to explore and sample. For something totally different, yet familiar if you are a fan of Sun Ra, Michael Ray and the Cosmic Krewe provides a look at what happens when creativity knows no bounds. Choose from Christian McBride, Andrew Hall’s Society Jazz Band, Tab Benoit and violinist Michael Ward and you should do just fine. Insider tip – Tim Laughlin is one of the most versatile clarinet players around – performing in both the traditional and modern genres with equal success. Don’t miss him!
Friday, April 30th finds Harry Connick, Jr. returning to the fest. Lately he has returned to his crooner style, but expect equal doses of New Orleans music, funk and even some jazz. Perhaps one of the more intriguing pairings of the festival takes place on this day as bassist/vocalist Me’Shell N’degeocello takes to the stage with composer/saxophonist Oliver Lake. When artists of this caliber collaborate, something special typically happens. Nicholas Payton and Sonic Trance will also perform as will Deacon John. Fresh from his critically acclaimed “Jump Blues,” the Deacon John set will certainly be popular, so get to the stage early. Insider tip – The New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars bring a distinctly New Orleans feel to traditional Klezmer music. The Coolbone Brass Band is a blend of hip-hop and brass band music – different, but good.