Has the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival become too much of a good thing? That's a question that was on the minds and in the mouths of more than a few concertgoers on Saturday (May 5), the second-to-last day of the sprawling celebration of regional and international jazz, blues and roots music, pop, rock and rap.
The Jazz Tent, where pianist and famous father Ellis Marsalis held forth on mainstream modern jazz with a variety of players, including sons Delfeayo and Jason on trombone and drums, respectively, was so crowded that it was next to impossible to catch even a glimpse of the stage, much less find a seat inside.
Not too far away, on one of the two largest stages at Jazz Fest, young hoodoo-blues wizards the North Mississippi All Stars aired out "Po Black Maddie" and some of the other trancey slide-guitar jams heard on their debut disc, last year's Shake Hands With Shorty. It was a challenge, though, working oneself into a position to see the onstage action via a giant video screen, and an even more difficult task attempting to escape the mass of sun-baked revelers.
That feeling of being crushed by a horde wasn't just an illusion. Jazz Fest, thanks in part to organizers' possibly ill-advised decision to book jammy hitmaker Dave Matthews and thoughtlessly late-arriving Crescent City hip-hopper Mystikal, broke its single-day attendance record last Saturday. More than 160,000 people crammed into the Fair Grounds Race Track, beating the previous record of 98,000, according to a report in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. The event's seven-day attendance, over the course of two long weekends, jumped to 618,000 from 466,000 last year.
The festival's 11 venues again offered an appealing smorgasbord of compelling sounds, along with mouth-watering Louisiana food specialties, and a variety of traditional arts and crafts. And the weather, at least for the second weekend, was spectacular -- sunny and considerably less muggy than in previous years. Those arriving early on Thursday were treated to the mournful fiddle sawing and infectious Southwest Louisiana rhythms of T-Mamou, at the aptly named Fais Do-Do stage. Not far away, at the Congo Square stage, the Culu Children's Traditional African Dance Co. presented the talents of a variety of young percussionists and dancers.
Over at the Jazz Tent, saxophonist Brent Rose and his four bandmates, products of the University of New Orleans jazz studies program, demonstrated their mettle as one of New Orleans' most impressive young outfits. Bebop, blues and nods to Crescent City funk informed the title track and other pieces from Quintology's latest CD Blues By 5 and the group's able soloists include guitarist Brian Seeger and pianist/organist Charlie Dennard.
African influences sifted through the arty arrangements and improvisations of pianist Randy Weston's quintet, later on the same stage. "Let's go to Nigeria," he said, before diving into a long, unaccompanied introduction, lea ding into a repeating riff and Talib Kibwe's soprano outing. The set, with Weston's "Little Niles," also featured impressive solo work from New Orleans-born trombonist Benny Powell and Alex Blake, a virtuoso whose arsenal of techniques included strumming, chording and pounding the strings of his upright bass.
Also on Thursday: The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, still the cream of the crop when it comes to their newfangled-traditional genre, offered greasy street rhythms and crunchy horn lines on "Fire and Brimstone" and other crowd-pleasing pieces. Chevere, featuring several members of Quintology, focused on Afro-Cuban jazz. And Austin singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams did her exquisitely downbeat thing, dropping her lethargic vocals over finely honed roots rock. Her low-key approach, unfortunately, doesn't make the most sensible match with a festival setting.
Paul Simon, leading a pliable band featuring Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini, easily was the pick hit of Friday's line-up, although he, like Matthew s, fits into neither the jazz nor heritage categories. "I love the festival," he said, early during a performance that included material from last year's You're the One CD along with smartly reworked versions of "Graceland," "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard," "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes," "Homeward Bound," "You Can Call Me Al," "Late in the Evening," "The Boy in the Bubble," "Still Crazy After All These Years," "Mrs. Robinson" and "Loves Me Like a Rock." Hometown hero Aaron Neville applied his inimitable falsetto to Art Garfunkel's old role in "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
Galactic, the jamband favorites from New Orleans, also drew a huge crowd that day, and had listeners doing the slow groove to the group's mix of Meters-inspired funk, experimental sounds and irresistible blend of guitar, organ and saxophone textures. The group, mixing music from last year's Late For the Future with earlier releases, was joined by saxophonist Skerik, drummer Stanton Moore's partner in Charlie Hunter side project Garage a Trois. Theryl "Houseman" DeClouet, the band's designated soul singer, cranked the energy up another notch with a mid-set trio of songs including "Something's Wrong With This Picture" and "Villified."
Legendary r&b singer Wilson Pickett, 60, seemed to be coasting, largely relying on his back-up band for support during a lackluster performance that included his "In the Midnight Hour" (featuring a sit-in by "60 Minutes" reporter and veteran Jazz Fest fan Ed Bradley) and "Mustang Sally."
A stroll around the Fair Grounds on Friday also brought encounters with drummer's drummer Ricky Sebastian, leading a first-rate septet -- including Los Hombres Calientes bandmate Irvin Mayfield on trumpet and Astral Project guitarist Steve Masakowski -- through Duke Ellington's "Caravan," Herbie Hancock's "One Finger Snap" and other pieces from "The Spirit Within," his just-released solo album.
The Alvin Bridges and Desire Community Choir lit up the Gospel Tent with a rousing version of "This Little Light of Mine," and musician and tv-ad pitch man Coco Robicheaux and the Perspirators turned in a crowd-pleasing mix of blues and swamp music.
Jazz fans got their fill on Saturday, with exemplary performances by Ellis Marsalis, top-of-the-line New Orleans quintet Astral Project featuring the underappreciated Masakowski and saxophonist Tony Dagradi on material partly drawn from 1999's Voodoo Bop and a band led by legendary drummer Elvin Jones. The aforementioned Mystikal took the Congo Square stage nearly 90 minutes after his scheduled start time. Matthews, easily the single largest draw of the weekend, concluded his set with a little help from Simon ("Me and Julio . . .") and Lenny Kravitz (on Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower").
Sunday, more relaxed and significantly less crowded than the previous day ("only" 90,000 folks), mostly favored homegrown talent, with performances by veteran rock-rooted band the Radiators, Jason Marsalis, charismatic singer-trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, and accordion-playing zydeco exponent C.J. Chenier (son of Clifton), among others.
The Neville Brothers turned in favorites such as "Yellow Moon," "Hey Pocky Way," the Meters' "Cissy Strut" and the Hawketts' "Mardi Gras Mambo," along with Aaron Neville's hit "Don't Know Much" and Dr. John's "Walk on Gilded Splinters." They capped it all with "Amazing Grace" and "One Love," the Bob Marley tune borrowed by the Nevilles as a sort of unity-in-music signature song. The way they sing it makes one believe the sentiment.
Jazz Fest, as usual, meant A-grade music, great food and good vibes. The intense crowding, though, was something of a downer. Will festival officials continue to sacrifice the event's quality-of-life factors -- room to roam from stage to stage, ability to actually watch and hear the acts one wants to see -- for quantity of ticket proceeds? Will anyone put a sensible cap on attendance, like, say, 100,000 for a single day? Will any efforts be made to alleviate this problem? Time will tell.
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Meanwhile, a sort of alternative fest is springing up in the shadow of Jazz Fest, thanks largely to the efforts of Superfly Presents, a New Orleans concert promotion company specializing in jam bands, mostly of the variety rooted in funk and jazz. Superfly Presents, organized partly as a result of the overflow crowd that showed up to see Phish at Jazz Fest in 1996, this year presented more than 35 shows at nine area venues. The concerts, for the first time including mainstream jazz performances by pianist McCoy Tyner and saxophonist Joshua Redman, had a potential audience of as many as 40,000 people, according to New Orleans magazine Offbeat.
The jam-band shows, those presented by Superfly and others, amounted to a festival of music in that genre, with a lot of mixing and matching and intermingling going on. Garage a Trois, with Hunter's fluid eight-string guitar/bass playing and Skerik's similarly agile saxophone work topping rhythms driven home by Galactic's Moore and percussionist Mike Dillon (a member of Critters Buggin', with Skerik) rocked the house until the wee hours last Wednesday at Tipitina's Uptown.
Soulive, an updated organ trio with a new CD, Doin' Something (Blue Note), began their sold-out show at the House of Blues' side club the Parish at 1:45 on Sunday morning, and didn't stop until nearly 5:30 a.m. Guitarist Eric Krasno, B-3 organist Neal Evans and drummer Alan Evans were joined by alto saxophonist Sam Kininger and special guest guitarist Mark Whitfield for new and older original material and covers of tunes by Stevie Wonder, the Righteous Brothers and War. And they did it all over again the next night.
Also on the list of jam bands (and related acts) in town, under the auspices of Superfly and other presenters: Medeski, Martin & Wood, Jazz Mandolin Project, Galactic, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, String Cheese Incident, DJ Logic and Project Logic, Deep Banana Blackout, Critters Buggin', Robert Walter's 20th Congress, the Disco Biscuits, Moore and More, and Mike Clark's Prescription Renewal. Call it the Berkfest of the South.
Superfly's annual Superjam, the one that last year brought together Stewart Copeland, Les Claypool and Trey Anastasio as Oysterhead, this time offered another one-of-a-kind mix at the historic Saenger Theater, with singer-bassist MeShell N'degeOcello joined by saxophonist Redman, downtown New York guitarist Marc Ribot, and keyboardist John Medeski of MMW. Dave Matthews Band drummer Carter Beauford, he of the spaceship-sized trap kit, was a bit out of place, making grand gestures where subtlety was called for and generally proving too inflexible for the good of the jams.
More impressive than the hyped all-star band was the evening's opening act, Los Hombres Calientes. Trumpeter and Jazz Fest MVP Irvin Mayfield and percussionist Bill Summers led an exhilarating charge through the modern jazz, Latin, African, Caribbean and funk textures heard on the group's just-released Vol. 3: New Congo Square on homegrown label Basin Street. The sextet, with bassist Edwin Livingston, pianist Victor "Red" Atkins, percussionist Yvette Summers and Ricky Sebastian in the drum chair this time (Jaz Sawyer did the duties at an earlier in-store performance), was joined by a horn section and guest pianist Ronald Markham for a set that included the new "Foforo Fo Firi" and Miles Davis' "Milestones." Said Summers, to the audience: "If you feel the spirit, rise!" And they did.
Philip Booth, writer and editor based in Tampa, adapted parts of his articles appearing in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Billboard Online and elsewhere, for this report.