It’s not surprising yet it remains illuminating that New Orleans artists’ sets stand tall next to the superstars who perform at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Many of them provided some of the highlights of the festival’s first weekend and were given credos by the national press. In his review of the event, The New York Times’ renowned music journalist Jon Pareles obviously showed that he gets what separates Jazz Fest from other major festivals. He wrote: “On stage I saw more sousaphones than laptops.”
Under cloudy skies with a nice breeze (perfect Jazz Fest weather), the opening act at the big Acura Stage was dubbed Batiste Fathers & Sons that proved to be an inspirational way to kick off the event. Russell Batiste led the large band filled with his relatives – father, uncles, siblings, cousins – in a horn-heavy funk/soul performance that had the crowd dancing. With Russell at the helm, the musical vibe was very much like his work heading his group Orchestra from Da Hood. He did take over the drum seat for awhile though primarily gave it up to his son and cousin Jamal Batiste. Russell’s mother was even in the crowd smiling and clapping as she watched this impressive reunion of family members.
By starting out with a three-man brass frontline, the Trumpet Mafia, led by Ashlin Parker, kind of fooled people into thinking that this was a good, though instrumentally ordinary, jazz band. Then a stream of trumpeters who had been waiting backstage arrived on stage blowing and got a rousing round of applause and lots of “Wows!” The total number of trumpet players was about 16 with the youngest being eight-year-old Leon Brown, the son of Leon “Kid Chocolate” Brown. They made a mighty, glorious noise. Adding to the intensity was conga player, Ghana-born Weedie Braimah, who seemed to show up everywhere especially with the Cuban groups. One-time New Orleanian Maurice Brown (no relation) was the featured guest of the set and performed several tunes from his new album, The Mood. Brown, a showman at heart, added further pizazz to the show as he offered some moves and twirled his trumpet.
Leo Jackson and the Melody Clouds, established in 1965 by Leo and Mabel Jackson and carried on by their dynamic son, performed a heart-felt set that represented traditional gospel at its best offering tunes like “He’ll Understand.” The group, which carries its own band, looked the part too donning matching suits. The leader, sporting a bow tie, came down from the stage to testify while running through the aisles of the Gospel Tent.
The Stanton Moore Trio with pianist David Torkanowsky and bassist James Singleton expanded it format for the Jazz Tent setting adding longtime compadres percussionist Mike Dillon and saxophonist Skerik. With the always eager Moore at the drums, the group opened with several of the late great drummer James Black’s numbers including “Magnolia Triangle.” Moore introduced guest vocalist Cyril Neville as “one of the greatest soul singers of all times. Backed by this solid band, Neville sang super versions of Allen Toussaint’s “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky” and “Night People.”
Pianist Abdullah Ibrahim boasts a distinguished presence in his appearance as well as his music. The jazz artist’s playing is just classically beautiful. Trumpeter Terence Blanchard replaced Hugh Masekela, who was forced to cancel due to health issues, in the group that included three saxophonists with the altoist also picking up the flute. It was a pleasure to hear the always-brilliant trumpeter in a setting other than as leader of his fine own band and playing the material of The Jazz Epistles. The set, with some stunning work by the baritone player, was mesmerizing.
The Cultural Exchange Pavilion, where, this year, the Jazz Fest celebrated the music of Cuba, was totally improved. Not only was it bigger, the new wood floor was just perfect for dancing. The intimate, fun-loving venue was much preferable to experiencing percussionist Pedrito Martinez and his band than at his other show in the Jazz Tent where dancers are discouraged. His set was way too hot for that. Chairs did make an unwanted appearance in the Pavilion earlier in the day for the more tradition band Septeto Nacional Ignacio Pineiro. It’s way too small for chairs or even for the dreaded floor sitters.
And then there’s Sunday… Much credit has to be given to the festival organizers for delaying the event’s opening and then, when all was safe, determining the show must go on. And it did. It opened at 3 p.m., just in time to catch Dr. John & the Gris Gris Krewe and hear them do favs like “Mama Roux” and Koko Taylor’s hit, “Wang Dang Doodle.” Those tunes made it almost feel like the rest of the stormy day didn’t really happen. The soulful funky pianist, Dr. John’s new band hit though nobody harder than drum master Herlin Riley.
Days like Sunday and last year’s stormy second weekend changes the festival experience. Though we all love a sunny and breezy fest, die-hard fans are out at the Fair Grounds making the best of it. Rules also tend to loosen up which made it possible to get down with some moves with the great saxophonist Maceo Parker and his tight band in the usually restricted Jazz Tent. Just as it should be…