There's a song about Jazzfest that the Pfister Sisters sang on opening day of this year's expanded eight-day extravaganza down in New Orleans. It's called "Down at the Jazzfest," and it's way better than the Dave Bartholomew-penned ditty "Jazzfest Time in New Orleans" that WWOZ, the indispensable NPR outlet, has christened as the festival theme.
The Pfisters' lyrics pay homage to the musical giants who've contributed to the city's pre- eminence in Jazz and R&B. One line captures it for me: "They fly in from Europe, fly in from Japan. They're humming "Big Chief' before the plane even lands."
I've been hooked on this festival since 1986, not only for the jazz, which is plentiful no matter what purists may say about the predominance of rock and pop acts on most of the 10 stages at the Fair Grounds. I come for the food, the night life, the reunion with family and friends, and just to soak up 10 days' worth of the laissez-faire attitude that makes the Big Easy a wonderfully unique city.
They've got the Jazz Tent formula down pat. Each day they bring in one big-name performer for the day's final set. Maybe two on a Saturday. The other four or five sets are awarded to local performers it is a festival about New Orleans and Louisiana heritage, after all. And happily, there are plenty of talented singers and players in and around this city.
This year's blockbuster acts included Chico Hamilton, Cassandra Wilson, Ornette Coleman, Dave Holland, Regina Carter, Herbie Mann's Reunion Band and the Crusaders, all of whom packed the several-thousand-seat tent and had the ever-enthusiastic crowds on their feet at the outset and for the finale.
Free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman's seemed to be the most eagerly awaited hour of all, with the curiosity seekers sticking around to enjoy a far out but often melodic journey with the soprano saxophonist and his drummer and bassist. An extra-added attraction was the reunion with two Orleanians, pianist Ellis Marsalis and clarinetist Alvin Batiste, who had played as young men with Coleman before his rise to prominence in 1960.
For me, though, the highlights were the appearances by flutist Mann and violinist Carter.
Mann was helped onstage by a nurse bearing an oxygen tank, hooked up to assist the 72-year- old's breathing, and he got a hero's welcome. Then his sextet, with bandmates David "Fathead" Newman on sax and flute, drummer Ricky Sebastian, pianist "Willie Tee" Turbinton and guitarist Larry Coryell, dug deep into the "Memphis Underground" period, playing all shades, all grades of blues including an elegiac "Battle Hymn of the Republic."
Regina Carter's tour de force performance had an unexpectedly Latin accent, thanks in part to the Cuban percussionist who joined her quartet. Tunes by Milt Jackson and Steve Turre simmered over Latin rhythms and "Mandingo Street" led to a bird-call-filled jungle. Carter saluted her native Detroit (Lucky Thompson's "Prelude") and plugged her latest album, "Paganini: To Live a Dream," jazzing up a Ravel composition.
In addition to playing superbly, Carter showed she can sing passably, dance voluptuously and charm an audience with her between-number conversation.
Some other Jazzfest highlights:
Al Belletto's big band perseveres in spite of the leader's recent back surgery, which forced him to hang up his tenor sax, at least for now. Belletto, an early champion of bebop in New Orleans at a time when the clubs only wanted traditional sounds, carries the torch now for the golden era of big bands. His book is full of Basie and Ellington standards, played with zest by his young and talented crew.
Michael Ward is a violinist of searing intensity, a jazzman with a funkified band. After an hour in the sun with him, I needed that nearby mist tent.
Chicago blues veteran Jimmy Johnson teamed up with his brother Syl, whose voice is a rougher, rawer carbon copy of Johnny Adams'. The late great Tan Canary was New Orleans' most cherished blues and jazz singer.
Cassandra Wilson's sultry singing, especially on the tranquil Jobim classic "Quiet Nights and Quiet Stars."
Local favorites John Boutte and Kermit Ruffins preceded Regina Carter, and their exuberant performances made the day one of the most memorable in years. Boutte's gospel roots were front and center on his tribute to Earl King, the blues singer/composer who died just before the festival opened. "Make a Better World" was one of King's classics. Boutte sings his reggae rhapsody to his six sisters every time out, and "Glory Land" was once again his hand-clapping everybody-sing-along encore.
Ruffins is equally charismatic, a trumpeter and singer with twinkling eyes, an infectious grin and a heaping helping of Satchmo-inspired showbiz savvy. "When I Die, You Better Second Line" could be his next big hit. And the two daughters and niece angelic kids of 8 or 9 who get a guest shot at every Jazzfest, almost steal the show. Ruffins had a final surprise: a 12-piece string section came onstage to furnish a cushy curtain of sound beneath his dreamy rendition of "Stardust."
Speaking of stealing the show, flutist Kent Jordan was just fine, but his sister Stephanie set hearts aflutter. She's a singer with poise and pizzazz, with a voice and an appealing look that bring to mind Carmen McRae and Lena Horne. Kent wrested the spotlight back, switching to piccolo and steaming through "Trane Depot" at a breakneck pace.
Astral Project, New Orleans' pre-eminent modern jazz band, is always pumped up for Jazzfest, and drew extra inspiration this year from the fact that their performance on May 3 fell 25 years to the day from their very first session. A serpentine blues, "Spiracle," was the most fetching tune.
There was much more to Jazzfest XXXIV and to the nighttime extravaganzas Piano Night, the Ponderosa Stomp, et al not to mention the forays into favorite eateries like Drago's, Uglesich's, the Royal Cafe, the Acme, House of Blues and (a new discovery) Elizabeth's. But for me, for now, that's all she wrote.