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.


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