This is the first part of my write-up of the 2008 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and other events I saw at the end of April in the Crescent City. You can also read the entire article with more pictures by downloading the June 2008 Jazz & Blues Report.
The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has evolved over the decades into one of the major popular music events. Increasingly over the past decade or so, tensions have risen over the Festival as a celebration of the music and culture of Louisiana and its increasing status as a major music festival. And ticket prices continue to increase so that it now costs $50 a day to attend, and purchasing advance tickets does not save money when one adds in TicketMaster's ridiculously high fees. Every day the festival brings in major pop icons and headliners whose connection to Jazz & Heritage increasingly seems remote. My frustration is while they spend the money to book a Billy Joel, they do not spend the money to bring in say Sonny Rollins, who last appeared at JazzFest in 1995 (the first year I went to JazzFest). They did bring in the Bad Plus, Lizz Wright, the Count Basie Orchestra, and Cassandra Wilson, along with Terence Blanchard, performed with the Louisiana Philharmonic in the Jazz Tent, but I was told that at least one prominent New Orleans trumpeter (not Wynton Marsalis) turned down the Festival's offer as too low. Ellis and Jason Marsalis both appeared, but neither Bradford nor Wynton were performers this year. Prior to Katrina I saw a marvelous Coltrane Tribute band anchored by McCoy Tyner, and while this year's festival sported a tribute to Max Roach with Jason Marsalis and others, they could have booked the amazingly still youthful Roy Haynes, or Chico Hamilton. For a Jazz Festival, they could do better.
This year, I attended the Festival's first weekend and, for the first time since Katrina, the second weekend expanded to four days. The weather was not cooperative this weekend, affecting the Saturday and Sunday of the first weekend. I understand that the weather was better the second weekend. For the first time since the nineties, my wife was with me for the Festival, exploring different performers than I do, such as spending a bit more time at the Fais Do Do stage than I did. I did try to catch and shoot as many different performers, although the weather and other circumstances limited my ability to see some of them.
Arriving at the New Orleans Fairgrounds, Friday April 25, after getting a spicy sausage poorboy, I went to the Economy Hall Tent for a group led by June Gardner, a drummer who once anchored the bands of Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls and Lionel Hampton as well as having spent five years on the road with Roy Good Rockin' Tonite' Brown. They played some nice, traditionally styled New Orleans Jazz. After enjoying several numbers, I stopped by the always-full gospel tent for the Voices of Distinction, one of the many groups, famous and not famous, that stir the soul over the two weekends. Then to the Blues Tent where I got to see Rufus 'Rip' Wimberly and the Dreamers playing some nice low-down blues. After a few numbers I went to the Acura Stage where Sheryl Crow would close that day for Susan Cowsill. A surviving member of the band the Cowsills, she has emerged as a well-regarded singer-songwriter. Before and after her I caught some performances from the local Delgado Community College Jazz Ensemble, a big band that sported crisp, energetic musicianship and had a pretty darn good singer as well.
They were followed by a solid modern jazz band from Holland led by pianist and composer, Amina Figarova, whose interesting compositions were matched by the fine ensemble work. After several numbers I wandered to the blues tent to see the fine Baton Rouge harp player and vocalist, J'Monque'D who certainly delivers his blues with wit backed by an excellent band supporting him, and it was real treat to hear him again in his annual JazzFest performance. A bit of brass band music from the Real Untouchables was up on the Jazz & Heritage Stage followed by a visit to the jazz Tent to catch the mix of modern and contemporary jazz from The James Rivers Movement, one of the Crescent City's most visible saxophonists, before I transversed across the Fairgrounds to hear the cross between New Orleans R&B and Tex-Mex Conjuncto music that characterizes The Iguanas on the Gentilly Stage. From there it was Congo Square Stage for Big Sam's Funky Nation, one of the highlights this day for me with their mix of Brass band horns with a deep funk groove mixed in with some blues seasoning that was exuberantly received. I missed Dwayne Dopsie on the Fais Do Do Stage, but did see Jamil Sharrif's New Orleans Jazz Professors in Economy Hall mixing in the older New Orleans repertoire with some swing before seeing a wonderful singer, Leah Chase singing some Dinah Washington and other classic songs in the Jazz Tent.
One of the few headline acts that interested me were the pairing of Allison Krauss (who as a young prodigy toured with the likes of Claude The Fiddler' Williams and others) with rock legend Robert Plant who really exhibited their considerable empathy and unique musical gumbo. I would have loved to see Leo Nocentlli and His Rare Funk gathering with folks from Living Colour and P-Funk, but the opportunity to see Ellis Marsalis took precedence and his marvelous quartet (vibes, piano, bass and drums) allowed him to explore some of his own underrated compositions as well as that of Monk (his most recent recording is centered on Monk's music) as well as Tab Benoit, whose thoughtful, muscular guitar is matched by a rare expressiveness as a vocalist. My Monday ended split between some marvelous singing from Lizz Wright in the Jazz Tent and Buckwheat Zydeco's strong set in the Blues Tent. The big stages closed that day with Sheryl Crow, Ozomatti and Burning Spear, the latter group being one aggregation I would have liked to see, but circumstances did not permit.
That night after the Festival, we visited Club 300, a jazz bistro where we had dinner and enjoyed some nice jazz from saxophonist Tony Dagradi, whose band backed up the vocalist Mary Jane Ewing, a vivacious ebullient vocalist. Weekdays the Club hosts the likes of Delfeayo Marsalis and Marlon Jordan, Jason Marsalis, and Steve Masakowski. It was an enjoyable dinner and music but the room was not full.