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New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Days 4-7: May 5-8, 2011

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Days 4-7: May 5-8, 2011
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Days 1-3 | Days 4-7

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
New Orleans, LA
April 27-May 6, 2011

Day 4: Thursday May 5, 2011
Vibraphonist Stefon Harris and Blackout was the featured act in the WWOZ Jazz Tent, but Christian Scott stole the show.

Scott—the young New Orleans-born trumpeter now building a national reputation from his Harlem, NY base—is a hard-bopper, but kicked back on a gorgeous ballad, "Isadora." Then he introduced its namesake, Isadora Mendez, went to one knee on the stage and proposed to the visibly stunned young lady as the beguiled crowd—including many of Scott's relatives and friends —cheered and hundreds of cameras clicked. She accepted.

The trumpeter's real-life experiences inspire his compositions. "Danziger" was a moving musical statement on the post-Katrina tragedy on a bridge by that name—the shooting, by police, of an unarmed civilian. His closer—a commentary on his own encounter with a gun-wielding traffic cop—was the angry "Ku Klux Police Department." Scott was deadly accurate in this piece, firing off round after round of smoking phrases.

Harris supplied more post-bop energy leading his quintet in the closing set. The vibraphonist, pianist Marc Cary and bassist Ben Williams were all in top form.


Stefon Harris

What should have been the day's highlight was sabotaged by inferior sound quality in the Blues Tent. Five present-day New Orleans piano professors took turns paying homage to the late James Booker, whose feats as a rhythm and blues keyboardist and singer from the 1960s through the early '80s are often imitated, but never duplicated. Listeners could catch only glimpses of Booker's genius in this setting; the piano and band efforts came across as alternately tinny or muddy, the lyrics of a couple singers were unintelligible. Only Lillian Boutte's rendition of "Let Them Talk" overcame the sound problems.

Tenor saxophonist Brice Winston offered somber musical reflection on Katrina, noting the storm had forced him to leave the Big Easy after 16 years and relocate to his native Tucson. Winston brought his mentor, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, out for the finale, a high-wire duet on a supercharged "Autumn Leaves."


Day 5: Friday May 6, 2011

Making difficult choices is an inescapable part of the jazz festival experience, with music from rock to gospel, jazz to blues to Cajun, blasting from 11 different stages simultaneously in the vast fairgrounds. A friend chose the Mingus Big Band as today's wrap-up set, and said it was terrific. I opted for the Gospel Tent, where Irma Thomas, the beloved "soul queen of New Orleans," sang a tribute to Mahalia Jackson on her Centennial.

Thomas' magnificent voice was ideal for this loving remembrance of gospel's greatest performer. Hits from "Whole World in His Hands" to "Didn't It Rain" rang out, the latter recalling, for me, the time that Mahalia sang it at Newport in 1958, and sure enough, the skies opened up.


Irma Thomas

After "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," an emotional Thomas, whose own deep faith was apparent, needed a moment to compose herself. "I laid my mother to rest in March," she explained to the overflow audience, dabbing at tears. Comforted onstage by family members and accompanists, she resumed singing.

The day began with former Flying Neutrinos singer Ingrid Lucia fronting an A-list quintet. Lucia's voice hints at Billie Holiday's, but her repertoire is much more upbeat, as typified by her tribute to Crescent City life, "The Party Don't Ever End."

Lucia, who like most musicians here is skilled in several genres, revived the old Kay Starr hit "Wheel of Fortune" as a slow-drag country ballad, then dug deep into the blues on "I'm With You No Matter What."

Intrigue was in the air for Fleur Debris, a new quartet led by piano innovator David Torkanowsky and starring Zigaboo Modeliste on drums and George Porter Jr. on bass, the latter two making their Jazz Tent debuts after decades with the late, great funk band, The Meters.

Modeliste kicked off the set with an ambidextrous solo, demonstrating his jazz chops, followed by Aaron Fletcher's avant-garde tenor playing, Porter's booming bass and finally Torkanowsky's multifaceted piano.

Kudos for Fletcher's transfixing solo on John Coltrane's brooding "Equinox" and a shouting blues finale, joined by trumpeter Nicholas Payton.

Blodie's Jazz Jam, hosted by Jazz Tent programmer Gregory Davis, has become a tradition, and this year's was one of the best.

A showcase mostly for young local talents, this one drew more than a dozen participants for an hour-long blowing session on old warhorses like "Amazing Grace" and "Bourbon Street Parade,"

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