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New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival: Notes and photos from the field

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival: Notes and photos from the field
Photos by Rick Mason

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
May 6-8, 2011
New Orleans Fair Grounds

BY RICK MASON

As the searing Louisiana sun sagged through the gathering Delta dusk west of New Orleans' Fair Grounds last Sunday, the electric atmosphere in front of the towering Gentilly Stage arced again and again as the Radiators' Dave Malone bellowed the lyrics to the Rads standard "Where Was You At?" while the Fishhead faithful swooned and danced with a fervor that suggested the end of the world was at hand.

In a way it was.

The 42nd annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was drawing to a close, and with it one of the final chapters of the venerable Radiators, closing out Gentilly one last time before calling it quits for good next month in one last blowout uptown at Tipitina's.

But now the Rads were surfing a crest of emotion palpable onstage and off, playing almost supernaturally tight ("like that"). Ed Volker, stage right, appeared relatively serene as his keyboards bubbled and popped, while Malone and the rest of the band roared, flanked by a phalanx of Bonerama horns, guest Warren Haynes' whining slide guitar and the soaring fiddle of Beausoleil's Michael Doucet.

Michael Doucet of Beausoleil
Michael Doucet of Beausoleil

After a momentary pause, the band launched into "Wild and Free" ("What you've kept us all these years," Volker told the crowd), a fitting enough epitaph for one of New Orleans most idiosyncratic and quintessential bands after 33 years of funky Fishhead music. But neither band nor fans wanted to say goodbye, and the Rads returned, along with Dave's subdude brother Tommy, for a rousing run through fellow New Orleanian Chris Kenner's 1961 hit "I Like It Like That."

With the Radiators soon riding into the sunset forever (barring reunions), Malone's funkified growling of "where was you at" seemed the perfect summation for this year's extravaganza.

Not only are the lyrics tantalizingly close to the traditional New Orleans greeting and latter day cultural talisman "where y'at?" It also hints at the agonizing logistical dilemma hard core music fans are forced to confront given Jazz Fest's daunting schedule of conflicting goodies. There are those who prefer to camp out in front of one of the megastages and slowly parboil in the throes of the bigger names. But if that's solely where you was at through the fest, the treasures missed are incalculable.

Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins

While the Rads were shutting down Gentilly, for instance, jazz saxophone titan Sonny Rollins was regaling an equally enthralled throng in the Jazz Tent. Plus, the Crescent City's iconic masters of second line funk, the Neville Brothers, held forth at the Fess Stage, while the remaining seven stages hosted sacred steel kingpin Robert Randolph, traditional jazz's Bob French and the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, zydeco's Rockin' Dopsie Jr., Haiti's roots rocking RAM, rising star Glen David Andrews in the Gospel Tent, the Philly soul of Maze with Frankie Beverly, and finally the seriously twisted sardonic blues of Bobby Lounge somewhere in the depths of the grandstand.

For the intrepid music adventurer, the only reasonable solution is to tear around the Fair Grounds at a frenetic pace, trying to catch as much as possible of one essential artist's set before rushing elsewhere to witness another's, all fueled by oyster po'boys and jambalaya snatched on the fly and hydrated by copious amounts of beer and frozen daiquiris (purely for medicinal purposes).
   
It's a form of musical triage, sometimes requiring split-second decisions that leave a trail of victims both inconsequential (Kid Rock) and tragic (the Nevilles, Allen Toussaint) in favor of the unique or rarely seen.
   
Such was the case with Rollins, who has said in interviews that he had a revelatory experience the last time he played Jazz Fest some 15 years ago, finding connections among jazz, the Caribbean rhythms he's long favored and the unique New Orleans cadences that evolved from Congo Square.
   
This time he explored that calypso tinge-to borrow a term from Jelly Roll Morton-in spectacular fashion, at least through the two-thirds of his set witnessed. Despite a temperature approaching 90, the 80-year-old Rollins came out in long pants and shirt sleeves, a hat pulled low over his sunglasses. He and his four-piece band launched into a lengthy foray built around Rollins' repeated riffing on an effervescent Caribbean phrase, the other musicians gamely scurrying around Rollins' declarative tenor. But it was on the subsequent "Don't Stop the Carnival" that Rollins really caught fire, carving out blistering cascades of bop phrases amidst the percolating rhythms, blowing and honking as if possessed, traversing the stage with a limping but emphatic pace as intense as his music.
   
Rollins' magnificence made it even more difficult to break away to head over to the Radiators' grand finale, in the process resisting the spyboy sirens attempting to lure the weak-willed into detouring to the Nevilles.
   

Irma Thomas
Irma Thomas

And that was just one of dozens of similar dilemmas over Jazz Fest's second weekend.
   
By now Jazz Fest is a New Orleans cultural institution that helps define the City That Care Forgot (if that term still applies in the post-Katrina, post-oil spill, approaching deluge times) via music, food, crafts and rituals reflecting the unique mix of native people and immigrants who inhabit the city and surrounding area. Southern Louisiana, and New Orleans in particular, seem only coincidentally part of the United States. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the Crescent City is essentially the northernmost outpost of the Caribbean, while Cajun country could be its own planet.
   
In both places, despite modern incursions and progressive hybrids, remnants of traditional culture-particularly the music-exist in a time warp that's wonderfully bizarre and vice versa. Endless variations of "Jolie Blonde," "Bourbon Street Parade," "St. James Infirmary" and "Tipitina" never seem to lose their validity or relevance, while Aaron Neville singing "Tell It Like It Is" or Irma Thomas easing into "It's Raining" seem to defy the intervening decades since they were new.

 

So it was when 71-year-old Al Johnson got things underway last Friday with a rollicking run through his Mardi Gras anthem "It's Carnival Time," prompting a big sing-along from the early crowd gathered at the Gentilly Stage. Sporting a wide-brimmed hat topped by a crown, Johnson sounded no older than when he cut the perennial favorite a half-century ago.

   

Al "Carnival Time" Johnson
Al "Carnival Time" Johnson

Back in the Jazz Tent was the amazingly versatile James Rivers, a local stalwart for decades usually identified as a jazz saxophonist, but really a thoroughly eclectic multi-instrumentalist. If he's known to the outside world at all, it's for his association with Clint Eastwood, having scored several of his films, notably Bird and The Bridges of Madison County. But Rivers' most astounding claim to fame is that he plays the bagpipes as a serious jazz instrument. He did a Coltrane-like version of "My Favorite Things" on the pipes, morphing into "Amazing Grace," then dove into the blues, taking turns blowing on flute and an harmonica that had been fastened directly onto the flute. Earlier he romped through Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" on tenor, then crooned the NOLA nugget "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans," singlehandedly covering more ground than some entire bands.
   

James Rivers
James Rivers

Next up there was former Astral Project pianist David Torkanowsky's new band, Fleur Debris (a take off on New Orleans' ubiquitous fleur de lis emblem). On alto sax was Aaron Fletcher, a New Orleans native who's spent nearly a decade in L.A. backing the likes of Stevie Wonder and Lalah Hathaway while playing mostly forgettable slick, snooze jazz on his own sessions. But the stellar rhythm section consisted of bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Ziggy Modeliste of the seminal Crescent City funk outfit The Meters, both, incredibly, playing in the Jazz Tent for the first time. Their straightahead jazz approach was as lithe and dynamic as the second line funk they're usually associated with, while Torkanowsky pounded out gospel-informed piano figures and Fletcher dropped his smooth schtick in favor of bop-oriented blowing and simmering solos. Torkanowsky, who looked like a space cadet when he arrived on stage wearing what he described as Professor Longhair's civil defense helmet, then led the group through a scintillating version of John Coltrane's "Equinox."
   
A much earlier incarnation of jazz was being played over in the Economy Hall Tent, where the spirit of traditional jazz thrives. There the Palm Court Jazz Band jaunted through a variety of standards in celebration of the upcoming birthday of trumpeter Lionel Ferbos, who'll turn 100 in July. Ferbos, looking dapper in traditional white shirt and black pants, enthusiastically joined in and wailed away on tunes like "Lil Liza Jane" while a long string of second liners wound through the aisles.
   

Lionel Ferbos
Lionel Ferbos

Meanwhile, the Soul Rebels, representing what you could call the third generation of New Orleans brass bands, spouted their heavily hip-hop influenced variation of the brass band tradition, lacing their lyrics with such socially conscious remonstrations as "stop killin' for recreation." Another brass band stalwart of the second generation, Kermit Ruffins, headed up his Barbecue Swingers over at the Congo Square Stage, having had to part company with his barbecue toting pickup in deference to the Fair Grounds setup, much to the consternation of some of his fans. Although he got his start with the Rebirth Brass Band, Kermit equally embraces the earlier styles of the likes of Louis Armstrong these days. So his version of "St. James Infirmary" was slow and wicked, his trumpet getting down and dirty, but curled around a Cab Calloway aside.
   
Lafayette's guitarist/accordionist Roddie Romero and the Hub City Allstars played a rousing mix of swamp boogie, Cajun and blues-rock reminiscent of Little Feat shortly before latter day country outlaw Jamey Johnson commandeered the big Gentilly Stage. The long-haired, long-bearded Johnson and his expansive band churned through Southern rock. But as a deft acoustic guitarist, Johnson suggested Willie Nelson, and as an old-school country vocalist, he evoked both Nelson and George Jones, even crooning the old standard "Moonlight in Vermont." Eventually he was joined by gospel's Blind Boys of Alabama, whose new album he just produced, as well as Willie himself.
   
Two of the finest pure singers in New Orleans closed out the day's Gospel Tent lineup with a dazzling tribute to the 100th birthday of gospel great Mahalia Jackson, who appeared at the first Jazz Fest in 1970. After a local gospel radio DJ enticed the crowd to shout out "Hallelujah, praise the lord," John Boutt  offered a few gospel standards in his mellifluous, dark-honey voice before giving way to the Soul Queen of New Orleans, Irma Thomas. Dressed in long white robes and backed by a choir, Thomas' powerful pipes soared through the likes of "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" and "How Great Thou Art." "God is good, my brother," said a guy in the crowd. So was Irma.
   
Finally, the popular Haitian band Djakout #1 unfurled the sinuous, jazzy grooves of festive kompa music from one corner of the racetrack, while Gregg Allman enticed a huge throng in the Blues Tent to join him word for word on glowing versions of such Allman Brothers classics as "Whippin' Post," Midnight Rider" and "Statesboro Blues."

 

D.L. Menard
D.L. Menard

Saturday dawned hot and sultry, and so was the chugging, classic Cajun sound of D.L. Menard and his Louisiana Aces. With his straw cowboy hat and battered acoustic guitar, the 79-year-old Menard, the pride of Erath, Louisiana, looked every bit the Cajun bard. In fact, he composed one of the great Cajun standards, "La Porte En Arri re" ("The Back Door"), which he sang with characteristic aplomb, his nasally tone suggesting why he's known as the Cajun Hank Williams. The charismatic Menard, who has long operated a one-man furniture factory that at last glimpse leaned precipitously starboard and was knee-deep in sawdust, also led his band through standards by Joel Sonnier and Dewey Balfa along with the Cajun national anthem, "Jolie Blonde."
   
Representing a far younger generation, 25-year-old Juilliard graduate Jon Batiste--from one of the great New Orleans musical families--sang with a surprisingly light and airy voice. But when leading his band through the vintage nugget "You Are My Sunshine" he peppered his piano work with atonal chords and acute tangents reminiscent of the late, eccentric piano master James Booker. Also pounding the ivories nearby was long, tall Marcia Ball, an acolyte of the great Longhair, whose rollicking mix of Fess-like triplets, Austin blues and Cajun spice inevitably sounds celebratory, as did her sizzling take on Allen Toussaint's "There's A Party Goin' On."
   
Over in the Jazz Tent, something entirely unique was brewing. Baritone Bliss, a lowdown answer to tenor madness, featured four bari saxophones and one bass saxophone, along with pianist Mari Watanabe and New Orleans master drummer Shannon Powell (who seemed everywhere throughout the weekend). Heading up the bari brigade were the Dirty Dozen's Roger Lewis and Astral Project's Tony Dagradi, joined by Tim Green, Calvin Johnson and Dan Oestricher, who collectively thundered and roared and simultaneously showed off their agility on a glistening incarnation of Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady."
   
On the big Fess Stage, meanwhile, a huge collective representing nearly every branch of the Louisiana musical universe gathered under the auspices of guitarist Tab Benoit's Voice of the Wetlands All Stars. Benoit, a staunch advocate for restoring the rapidly eroding wetlands along the Louisiana coast, was joined by George Porter, Cyril Neville, Cajun fiddler Wayne Thiibodeaux, Astral Project drummer Johnny Vidocovich, Mardi Gras Indian Monk Boudreaux, blues-rock guitarist Anders Osborne and swamp-blues singer Johnny Sansone. Their pointed jams inspired an infectious crossbreeding of funk, jazz, Cajun fiddling and Indian chants.
  

Dr. Michael White
Dr. Michael White

Trad clarinetist Dr. Michael White, back in Economy Hall, led the Original Liberty Jazz Band-with Jason Marsalis sitting in on drums-through an absolutely killer version of "Summertime," taking inspiration from Sidney Bechet's hit, working every nuance and wailing on the wicked licorice stick. "The Gypsy Second Line," a White original, followed, dancers swinging up a storm on the adjacent dance floor. Then the band eased into a raucous take on "St. Louis Blues" with singer Thais Clark caressing the lyrics. Not far away at the same time, guitarist Walter "Wolfman" Washington and the Roadmasters were howling through electric blues, trumpeter Nicholas Payton's SeXXXtet was wrapping up a straightahead jazz set and Beausoleil finished up with a flourish of Cajun fire.
   
Then it was off to Congo Square, where the crowd was so densely packed for Lauryn Hill that it was impossible to get situated without the sound bleeding in from other stages. When she got off to an erratic, stumbling start, it wasn't worth deciphering her stuff from the stark contrast of Jimmy Buffett's nearby sunny changes in latitude. Buffett, who got his start busking in the French Quarter and literally the poster child of this year's fest, got a big charge out of the local Parrotheads contingent with NOLA-centric tunes like "I Will Play For Gumbo," with Toussaint, singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester and swamp guitarist Sonny Landreth sitting in.
   

Bobby "Blue" Bland
Bobby "Blue" Bland

Presiding from a chair over in the Blue Tent was 81-year-old blues legend Bobby "Blue" Bland, responsible for numerous blues standards, who punctuated horn-stoked versions of "St. James Infirmary" and Bill Wither's "Ain''t No Sunshine" with his trademark growl. And finally it was Aaron Neville performing a gospel set with brother Charles on sax, and recalling the many years he showed up unannounced to sing with the Zion Harmonizers, whose leader Sherman Washington died last year but whose visage beamed down from the exterior of the tent. Aaron, his glorious voice trilling off the canvas, wrapped up the day with a medley of "This Little Light of Mine" flowing into "Amen" and "Amazing Grace."

 

Sunday--hotter still--got underway with Aaron's son Jason singing a swinging take on Sinatra's "The Way You Look Tonight" backed by a band led by Funky Meters' drummer Russell Batiste. Nearby, former New Orleans taxi driver Mem Shannon, in honor of Mother's Day, played a menacing blues ditty warning against talking trash about his mama. Accordionist Goldman Thibodeaux, meanwhile, warned about succumbing to jealousy (which in his Cajun accent came out as "jalousness") while leading the Lawtell Playboys through a traditional Cajun set. And the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble reconstructed precise, scintillating versions of Jelly Roll Morton's "Jungle Blues" and Louis Armstrong's "Willie the Weeper."

   

Goldman Thibodeaux
Goldman Thibodeaux

A little while later Economy Hall was overflowing with a crowd gathered to see the Trem  Brass Band, no doubt lured by the HBO series named for the group's home neighborhood.
The older members were joined by a number of teenagers, who accordingly took their solos through bristly standards like "I'll Fly Away."
   
Fais Do-Do, meanwhile, hosted three bands in succession on the progressive wing of Cajun music. Doing one of their periodic reunions were the vets of the bunch, the Bluerunners, who were out in front of nearly all the rest with an indie-rock /Cajun vibe back in the early '90s. Picking up that thread and injecting rock intensity into traditional Cajun formats were two 20-something bands: the Lost Bayou Ramblers and Feufollet. The Ramblers' Louis Michot ripped out stinging lead on his fiddle as if it were an electric guitar, while Alan LaFleur thoroughly abused his mammoth upright bass, thrumping it aggressively, standing on it and even sending it surfing above the heads of the crowd. Not to be outdone, Feufollet was equally ferocious, tearing through a punkish version of the Cajun standard "Parlez Nous A Boire."
   

Mem Shannon
Mem Shannon

A pair of other longtime Jazz Fest presences reigned from starkly different vantage points. Pianist Ellis Marsalis, patriarch of the illustrious Marsalis clan and mentor to numerous New Orleans musicians, played an elegant jazz set, with son Jason helping out on vibes. Bo Dollis, Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indian tribe, had to be helped on stage while his son, Bo Jr., sang the Temptations' "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" and the Indian standard "Smoke My Peace Pipe." "My son....I can't do it no more," the elder Bo, gesturing toward Junior, told the crowd, sitting in a chair and sounding feeble. But a little while later he was up, singing Fess' "Hey Now Baby," his voice roughly textured and strong, his body rocking to the fierce street rhythms of the Magnolias.
   
Jazz Fest is riddled with that power of rejuvenation.
    
It's made a huge journey from its hesitant start in 1970, when as legend has it, the audience was outnumbered by the performers, which included the incomparable Duke and Mahalia. In those early years, you could literally climb up onto the postage-stamp stages alongside the Meters or Booker or Fess, and be dazzled close-up by the gold fillings in Clifton Chenier's teeth.
   
Such close encounters are rarer in these days, with tens of thousands flooding the grounds, but more possible than you may think, because Jazz Fest is still fundamentally about community. Sure there are missteps here and there. In an apparent but misguided attempt to expand the fan base, the event's first weekend included appearances by Bon Jovi and the notorious Kenny G, the latter an unconscionable embarrassment, especially foisting his moronic bleating on the Jazz Tent. Plus the local media apparently were prevailed upon to glue the awkward "presented by Shell" onto every full reference to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, a prime case of corporate arrogance self-sabotaging a gesture of corporate goodwill.
   
Still, the sense of Jazz Fest community is thoroughly genuine.
   

Nicholas Payton
Nicholas Payton

It's there in people proudly wearing 30-year-old Jazz Fest t-shirts; in faces familiar from many years past still doing the two-step at the Fais Do-Do Stage; in the 12-year-old singing along in French with near-octogenarian Menard; in the toddlers decked out in full feathers-and-beads Mardi Gras Indian regalia alongside their fathers and grandfathers.
   
It's also evident in the second lining NOPD cops, and the guy sitting in one of two lawn chairs across the street from the Fair Grounds under a hand-lettered sign that says "Fortin Street VIP Seating," along with the eight-year-olds a block away stoking up their kid incarnation of a funky brass band.
   
And it's there in the women in their go-to-meetin' frocks, fanning their faces and praising Jesus in the gospel tent, as well as the little old ladies twirling their be-ribboned parasols while second lining to the traditional jazz bands.
   
Plus it exists in the untattered links to previous generations whose spirits still haunt the Fair Grounds: Fess's bespeckled face beaming over the stage named in his honor; the infectious grins of Canray Fontenot and Clifton Chenier in paintings flanking Fais Do-Do; and the fest's own version of Yankee Stadium's Monument Park, featuring painted tributes to its very own Ruth and Gehrig: Danny Barker and Gatemouth Brown.
   
And finally it's encapsulated in the actions of a straw-hatted woman, who just after entering the Jazz Fest gates one day, pirouetted, threw her hands in the air and exultantly declared, "I'm home!"


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