As with all things New Orleans, the incomparable New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has been in steady recovery mode. If the second ’08 weekend is any example, at least that very important part of the New Orleans jazz, culture, and social calendar is all the way back. Duties at our own excellent Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland (TCJF) (see the Plain Dealer daily newspaper web site for several laudatory reviews of the proceedings) prevented attendance at NOJ&HF weekend #1, which generally overlaps TCJF weekend #2; the weather gods weren’t kind that weekend anyway, thoroughly drenching the first Saturday.
So our return to the Crescent City from TCJF was spiced with eager anticipation for NOJ&HF weekend #2, including the return of Thursdays to the schedule. Thursday has long been unofficially designated as a big day for "locals" to invade the Fairgrounds and sample Jazzfest; the legions of Jazzfest visitors generally arrive for Friday-Sunday. This year also brought a new view of Jazzfest as I eagerly volunteered for stage announcement duties in the WWOZ Jazz Tent and for WWOZ broadcast stints, which began with the Thursday proceedings.
After catching some lunch at the Louisiana foodfest that accompanies Jazzfest (yes folks, when you’re at Jazzfest the eats are a major part of the fun) — in this case a de rigeur soft shell crab po’boy washed down with the ever-refreshing strawberry lemonade and followed by some red velvet cake that was unfortunately a bit on the dry side (scratch that one for the weekend), I ambled over to the WWOZ Jazz Tent to catch the second half of NOLA diva Topsy Chapman’s tribute to Dinah Washington, then intro’ed Phillip Manuel’s potent tribute to Nat King Cole and headed over to the broadcast tent. Via broadcast headphones I got a big earful of trumpeter Maurice Brown Effect’s set followed by Big Chief Donald Harrison’s Mardi Gras Indian-funk & bop informed brand of alto madness to close the day.
Getting to the Fairgrounds, which due to post-Katrina construction doesn’t offer general parking facilities, is a tad adventurous by car. The parking matter was solved by the many enterprising neighbors and businesses in the vacinity of the Fairgrounds who are more than willing to sell you a parking spot on their property. Arriving on Friday in time for the (Dirty Dozen Brass Band veteran) Kirk Joseph Tuba Woodshed set featuring fellow tubist Matt Perrine, was an exceptional immersion into the low end of New Orleans’ rich brass tradition. Later that day we broadcast The Bad Plus, who remain much more rewarding live than on record where their dry humor is not the same as they explore their unusual repertoire. One thing I’ve always appreciated about The Bad Plus is how they bring a new audience element to what is in essence a standard acoustic piano trio landscape.
Friday’s closing sets offered tough choices — broadcast responsibilities aside; one had to choose between Stevie Wonder on the big Acura stage, John Prine on the Gentilly Stage, Michael Franti & Spearheard on the Congo Square stage, Terence Blanchard & the Louisiana Philharmonic in the Jazz Tent, NOLA’s blues queen Marva Wright (who WWOZ broadcasted) in the Blues Tent, a tribute to Clifton Chenier on the Fais Do Do Stage, "All a Part of God’s Family" in the Gospel Tent, the Soul Rebels Brass Band on the Jazz Heritage Stage… you get the idea. A late afternoon rain shower simplified my choice: remain in the ‘OZ broadcast tent; a quick dash over to the Acura Stage, where the audience is uncovered, proved less than satisfying as the Stevie hordes had spilled onto the track in a sea of umbrellas. From most reports Stevie didn’t disappoint.
With no broadast responsibilities, Saturday Jazz Tent highlights included the lush-voiced Stephanie Jordan (daughter of free jazz saxman Edward "Kidd" Jordan, sister of flutist Kent, trumpeter Marlon, and violinist Rachel, one of NOLA’s most gifted musical families), a brilliant and well-produced tribute to Max Roach delivered by drummers Herlin Riley, Jason Marsalis, Shannon Powell + band, big fun Bobby McFerrin/Chick Corea duo, and closing with trumpeter Irvin Mayfield (see our @ Home piece in the current issue of JazzTimes) and his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. Among the many NOJO delights of their NOLA-proud set was the revelatory and joyous clarinet playing of Evan Christopher. They closed the Jazz Tent with actor Jude Law eagerly joining a second line onstage.
The festival closed on Sunday with all manner of musical delights, topped by Dianne Reeves on fire in the Jazz Tent. At one point when I eased away from the Jazz Tent for one of the weekend’s highlight eats — luscious banana bread pudding (other weekend gastronomic delights included the duck po’boy, and the succulent crochon du lait — I hope I got that right — po’boy, chicken & tasso over creole rice) — as I crossed the grounds lazily lingering at several stages inhaling my treat, there was the unique experience of hearing Big Chief Bo Dollis & the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indians chanting out "Iko Iko OBAMA" over the blistering trumpet solo of Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, at the same time the Derek Trucks Band was wailing Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s anthem "Volunteered Slavery" in the Blues Tent. The weekend happily proved once again that there ain’t nothin’ like the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival!
The Independent Ear