Set up on about a dozen stages, representing a cultural fiesta of sights and sounds, the music ranged from straight ahead jazz to traditional Dixieland to roaring blues and gospel to blistering funk, all performed with passion and poignancy.
All is well in New Orleans! Well, not exactly but from April 28th through May 7th, the 37th Annual Jazz & Heritage Festival brought a sense of celebratory normalcy to a city torn in half by Hurricane Katrina last fall. Boosted by the rock of such megastars as Bruce Springsteen, Dave Mathews and Paul Simon and jazz royalty like Herbie Hancock, Steve Turre and Eddie Palmieri, New Orleans reclaimed its role as the gravitational center of musical culture. The historic racetrack became the place for joyful reunions of families and friends, as well as the spiritual spot of musical diversity. Thanks to the gallant efforts of George Wein, Quint Davis and their stalwart staff, the vision of bringing the festival back under such challenging circumstances became reality. Immediately after the storm, the grandstand suffered wind-damage, the grounds became a muddy lake and the financial and moral fiber was severely hurt. However, the announcement was made for an emotional return to form for jazz fest; the grandstand was repaired, the grounds drained and manicured and sponsorships were secured. This paved the way to bring a flurry of great entertainers on board. And so, the wafting scent of jambalaya filled the air, the crowds flocked back to New Orleans to dance and sing and sweet, lovely music reverberated throughout The Big Easy! Set up on about a dozen stages, representing a cultural fiesta of sights and sounds, the music ranged from straight ahead jazz to traditional Dixieland to roaring blues and gospel to blistering funk, all performed with passion and poignancy. Where else could you dine on spicy gumbo, dance with second line parades, clap along with fiery gospel singers, participate in a watermelon sacrifice and learn how to craft a fiddle from a square piece of mahogany? With an Abita Turbo brew in one hand and an overstuffed shrimp po'boy in the other, one could embark on a musical voyage of epic proportion. Costumed Mardi Gras Indians, the funkiest klezmer band on the planet and emotional performances sent this version of jazz fest into orbit. Now, for some of the musical highlights: Steve Turre, gusting with local trombonist Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, brought stellar guidance to the young band, updating a wild sound on classic songs such as "St. James Infirmary". In evening performances around the city, Turre, possibly inspired by a tour of the flooded areas, blasted emotional depth through his trombone at Snug Harbor and made his signature conch shells cry and moan with a young band of future jazz stars from the University of New Orleans. Duke Ellington's "Caravan" and "In A Sentimental Mood" were stirring, coated with moody textures. Beautiful, inspiring performances! Donald Harrison, nicknamed "Mister Cool Breeze" by none other than Shirley Horn, played his signature tune with gustoâ??¦he was joined onstage by George Coleman, blowing a fat saxophone on a more traditional version of "St. James Infirmary". Eddie Palmieri fleshed out this all-star band, with Latin fills on the piano and a young trumpeter with a brilliant future named Christian Scott (Harrison's nephew) brought the jazz tent audience to its feet with an impassioned solo on "In Orbit". Herbie Hancock's highly-anticipated performance was delayed about 25 minutes as the fire chief cleared the packed aisles for safety reasons. Hancock saturated the jazz tent with synthesized heaven on some new tracks and then brought Terence Blanchard onstage for harmonious synergy on Miles' "Tutu". Hancock must have found the fountain of youth, as he still looks young and plays with the energy of a performer half his age. In the blues category, Etta James sang with deep conviction, in a performance ranging between sultry and stormy. Most people in the crowd were surprised by her streamlined looks, but enjoyed the same old volcanic singing voice. Other great blues performances included swampy guitarist John Mooney, whose galvanic style echoes Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson of the Mississippi Delta.
This review would not be complete without mentioning the most impassioned and powerful performance of the festivalperhaps the most memorable in the 37-year history of jazz fest. Bruce Springsteen wasted no time in mining the depths of the Pete Seeger songbook - his new album is the sublime Seeger Sessions. This was pure American music, thrown out at the crowd with seemingly reckless abandon, but hitting its target square in the bullseye. Springsteen's charisma and energy brought vital life to standards such as "Oh Mary Don't You Weep," "Jacob's Ladder" and "We Shall Overcome". The swelled crowd was driven to ecstasy by the delivery of these songs by a large band incorporating horns, fiddles, saloon piano and gospel-like harmonies. The music invoked the spirit of New Orleans with brushes of Cajun, traditional jazz, folk and blues mixed together in a joyous jambalaya of sound, second-lining on riotous romps of traditional tunes and updating original songs to custom-fit the New Orleans predicament (his "My City In Ruins" was simply elegant and emotionally stirring). Introducing his encore, Springsteen said that "a hundred bands in this town can play this better than we can," but he breathed new life into the standard "When The Saints Go Marching In," singing it with quiet desperation, so the lyrics could be heard clearly. This version provided sobering hope to a city in need of a new lease on life.
Unfortunately, the return of Fats Domino to the stage did not take place as he was not feeling up to par to perform in front of a giant crowd. However, he graciously appeared onstage to thank the audience and to express his love and best wishes to his beloved city. It was soothing to see and hear "The Fat Man," though his performance was missed. Another MIA was Nicholas Payton, who suffered a lip injury earlier in the week. Greg Davis, of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, put together an exciting collection of legendary N'awlin's performers at the closing of the jazz tent (including Fats Domino saxman Roger Lewis) and their performance was pure joy from start to finish, a perfect exclamation point to this auspicious occasion. The final song was also "When The Saints Go Marching In". But unlike Springsteen's melancholy and moving performance, this version moved in a more traditional and swinging direction. In fact, it may have been the cherry on the sundae of awesome and emotional performances, in which the horns and high-steppers reclaimed New Orleans as a city of eclectic music, color and pageantry. The band affirmed that life is good when you're breathing, dancing, singingthe joy of it all made every sweat-drenched person in the jazz tent claim this as a truly memorable year for the Jazz & Heritage Festival. Can't wait until next year!