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New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival 2009


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If you want to experience music as wide and as deep as the mighty Mississippi River, it is best to go right to the source. In the lush surroundings of the oldest horse racing track in The Big Easy, the 40th Annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival celebrated a diverse assortment of music, and provided an international audience with a far-flung array of Louisiana culture—it was the best attended festival since Hurricane Katrina.

For the most part, beautiful blue skies presided over a dozen stages, each presenting a particular style of music, ranging from gospel to blues, jazz to funk, and rootsy rock and roll to Cajun and zydeco. Internationally famous acts played alongside local favorites—in several hours, one could meander from Neil Young to Buckwheat Zydeco to the Zion Harmonizers; within this beehive of musical activity, jazz figures such as Kurt Elling, Jimmy Cobb, and Tony Bennett figured prominently. Their sweet sounds echoed amongst the gyrating crowds, weaving through serpentine layers of arts and crafts, food booths displaying local dishes such as Natchitoches meat pies, Cajun duck po'boys, and spicy crawfish etouffee, and clung to the low-hanging branches of the magnolia trees. From brass band funeral marches honoring the demise of several local legends, such as Snooks Eaglin and Eddie Bo, to the undulating rhythms of the fiery Latin band fronted by percussionist Poncho Sanchez, one could find musical ecstasy along this journey. The trick is to drink your Miller Lite fast enough to keep it from spilling as you dance along the way—from stage to stage.
Due to an Earth Day event in Southern California, we could only attend the second weekend, from 4/30 to 5/3. Although it was disappointing to miss the masters from the first weekend, such as Roy Haynes, Wynton Marsalis, and Hugh Masekela, the extraordinary wealth of talent during the second weekend swept away any feelings of melancholia, and replaced it with joy and awe. Many people say that more jazz should be represented at this festival. They feel that so much music is presented on so many different stages that the jazz idiom is diminished. However, if one chooses to hear jazz all weekend, it is an easy task—come early, find a folding chair in the spacious jazz tent, and nestle in with your beignets and cafe au lait for several wonderful acts each day. There are singers and swingers, purveyors of everything under the musical sun, ranging from traditional to modern—music to soothe your soul, and to energize your body. It's all good!

Highlights of the 2009 Festival included the first stop of a world tour celebrating the 50th anniversary of the bestselling jazz recording of all time, Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue. It kicked off with original drummer Jimmy Cobb, leading an excellent band, playing the original five tunes—this was no mere nostalgia act, but rather, a vibrant tribute of timeless power and intensity. A blistering trumpet solo by Wallace Roney opened "So What," followed by elegant piano flourishes from Larry Willis. Jimmy Cobb and Buster Williams primed the engine on drums and bass, respectively, through the blues classic, "Freddie Freeloader." Nice touches of alto sax from Vincent Herring brought heat through the haze on "Blue In Green" and "Flamenco Sketches." Javon Jackson's tenor sax shone brightly on "All Blues." The appreciative audience gave a rousing standing ovation after each and every composition. It was a performance rooted in history and education, brought to life with high energy and passion.

Another legend, Tony Bennett, performed with a phenomenal quartet at the larger Gentilly stage for a massive audience of all ages. At eighty-two, the crooner is still spry, classy, and in great voice... the chemistry between him, the band, and the audience was magical. His encyclopedia of hits included "I Left My Heart In San Francisco," "Sing You Sinners," "The Best Is Yet To Come," and "The Good Life." His touches of sophistication throughout the set brought a nostalgic glow of the essence of torch singing. His performance will go down as one of the finest in the jazz festival's rich 40-year history

The clarinet woodshed featured three local impresarios, Evan Christoper, Tim Laughlin, and Gregory Agid. This was a show which mixed traditional tunes such as "Nightingale In Berkeley Square" with the modern intonations of original songs such as "Isle Of Orleans." Helping to bridge the gap between old and new was premier New Orleans pianist, David Torkanowsky, whose fills on Ellington's "Mood Indigo" fused perfectly with the swirl of clarinets. This was a marvelous set; with eyes closed, one could imagine being on a swaying riverboat, chugging through the attic of America's Southland.

Another Ellington bonanza was Delfeayo Marsalis' "Such Sweet Thunder" revue. With brother Jason on drums, this show was another crowd-pleaser, mixing bebop with well-played standard fare. Their rendition of Satchmo's "Wonderful World" had a soothing, slow-rolling stride, peppered with spicy trombone flourishes. Delfeayo honored America's military in his introduction of the song, and the band followed up with a proud arrangement which encouraged the patriotic members of the audience to clap along enthusiastically.

A nice surprise was local jazz ingenue, Sharon Martin, whose husky purr showed consummate control over a wide range of material, from the soulful stirrings of "Back To Normal," a tribute to the late Johnny Adams, to some fine scatting on a gorgeous version of "But Beautiful." Her charismatic performance was one of the best of the fest.

Speaking of prolific, the ageless legend, James Rivers, took multi-tasking to a Mount Everest level, playing everything from bagpipes on "When The Saints Go Marching In" and "Amazing Grace," to harmonica on a blues stomper, "Baby You Don't Have To Go." In keeping with the eclectic nature of his spirited performance, he played flute and sax on several compositions... including Tito Puente's classic "Oye Como Va." Rivers has been performing in New Orleans for about a thousand years... and he is like the Tabasco sauce in a musical gumbo which makes this city such a joy to visit.

John Boutte, another local legend, performed gallant versions of "Good Neighbor" and Paul Simon's "American Tune," backed by a terrific band. He did double-duty, singing with John Scofield, at the Blues Tent, performing some gospel and socially conscious compositions from the excellent new album, Piety Street. Scofield's playing took numerous cues from the encyclopedia of "riffology." There were a truckload of glorious moments in this show.

One of the nice aspects of Jazzfest is discovering a hidden gem—in this case, the young Chicago trumpeter, Mario Abney, who performed with a sextet whose combined years may not even equal Tony Bennett's age. However, they played with wizened control and discipline; original songs like "Spiritual Perception" were dynamic, combining rapid-fire trumpet flares with poised piano rolls. For a young band, this sextet played with intensity and raw power, way beyond their years. In a tour de force arrangement of Cannonball's "Work Song," dedicated to Abney's recently deceased mother, the performance was riveting—it was like a good night at Chicago's Jazz Standard.

The jazz performance circle was completed with the Newport All-Stars, led by Jazzfest founder, George Wein, who accompanied a great band on piano. The group consisted of various generations of jazz; an effervescent Jimmy Cobb on the skins, Randy Brecker, soloing nicely on trumpet, on "Body And Soul," Howard Alden on guitar, Anat Cohen on clarinet and tenor sax, and newcomer, Esperanza Spalding, on upright bass... they jammed exuberantly on compositions such as "Shreveport Stomp" and "Prelude To A Kiss," in which Esperanza exhibited her fine vocal skills. A lively rendition of Dizzy's "Birk's Works" featured each member of the band in all its frenetic glory.

These performances were great, but what helps to make the New Orleans Jazz Festival such a wonderful experience are also the various musical styles outside the boundaries of jazz. We witnessed passionate and energetic performances by the Rebirth Brass Band, eighty-six year old bluegrass legend Doc Watson, the manic guitar of Louisiana-bred bluesman, Buddy Guy (it is evident that he influenced Jimi Hendrix in the '60's), the Wetlands All-stars featuring relevant post-Katrina social statements by the likes of Dr. John, Tab Benoit, and Meters' bassman, George Porter, and a bravado performance for the ages by Neil Young, whose finale, the Beatles' "A Day In The Life," was marked by the breaking of every string on his guitar, from the fury of his playing. Solomon Burke proved his worth in the pantheon of soul, bringing the Memphis sound to the Crescent City. Bonerama put the "fun" in funk, and Kidd Jordan locked in on some wild avant-garde improvisations, while Kurt Elling crooned beautifully. Music flowed everywhere, even in the streets after the fest ended each evening.

As we look forward to the 41st Annual Jazz and Heritage Festival, let's hope there is a continued acknowledgement of the jazz music which has shaped our cultural heritage, introducing new generations to the majesty of America's greatest contribution to the arts. It is nice to hear the local and national legends each year, but one can only look forward to an ambitious leap into the unexpected for the main stage acts: perhaps a Norwegian jazz quartet, the guitar improvisations of John Abercrombie, the ambitiously lush orchestrations of Maria Schneider, and most important at this juncture, the long overdue performance by the saxophone colossus, Sonny Rollins—some of these greatly respected musicians would be most welcome in 2010!

Le bon temps roulet!

Photo Credit

Gary Firstenberg

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