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Cajun-Zydeco Festival heats up

3rd June 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

Cajun and zydeco music, two totally Louisiana-born styles, runs through family bloodlines. One generation passes the tradition on to the next with young kids usually making their first appearances along side their pops on the bandstand.

It’s a bit of a rarity to find a father and son leading their own bands at the same festival. That’s the case at this weekend’s free Cajun-Zydeco Festival, Saturday, June 8, and Sunday, June 9, outside of the Old U.S. Mint at the foot of Esplanade Avenue. On Sunday, accordionist/vocalist Nathan Williams and the Zydeco Cha Chas, who put on a pumpin’ show at this year’s Bayou Boogaloo, take the “Esplanade in the Shade” Stage at 3:30 p.m. Earlier in the day, at the grassy Barracks Street Stage, his son, accordionist/vocalist Lil’ Nathan and the Zydeco Big Timers crank up at 11 a.m.

Naturally, Lil’ Nathan got his start playing with the Cha Chas first on rubboard, then drums before he became interested in the accordion. Nathan Sr., on the other hand, immediately took up the piano keyboard squeeze box after being encouraged by his brother Sid Williams. As a kid, he had also become enthralled by the instrument when, from behind a screen door, he would watch the King of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier perform at a bar in St. Martinville. When Sid moved the family to Lafayette to eventually open his renowned club, El Sid O’s, the young Nathan Sr. met and was influenced by accordionists Clayton Sampy and Buckwheat Zydeco.

Those old-school roots remain apparent in Nathan Williams’, 50, approach to zydeco music. Celebrated for his gift as a songwriter who pens lyrics about everyday life and perpetuates the zydeco tradition of animal-themed tunes like “Follow Me Chicken,” Williams doesn’t stray from the big keyboard accordion that was the instrument of choice of his mentors. He keeps his band close to home with his brother, Dennis Paul Williams contributing truly tasty electric guitar. Dennis Paul is also a gifted artist whose soulful oil and water color paintings have been displayed at numerous exhibitions. Cousin Mark Williams has held the important position of rubboard man since the Cha Chas’ inception with longtime, kickin’ Herman “Rat” Brown behind the drums in a rhythm section complete with bassist Steve Prade.

With his signature black, wrap-around sunglasses and black cowboy hat, Nathan Williams Sr. found a look and sound he’s stuck and succeeded with for over 25 years. Talk about consistency, each of his albums on the Rounder Records label are top-of-the-line zydeco products.

At age 14, Lil’ Nathan released his first album with the Big Timers, Zydeco Ballin’. It’s straight-up zydeco in the style of his father and includes such standards as Chenier’s “I’m Comin’ Home.”

Nowadays, Lil’ Nathan, 25, is known to switch from the piano keyboard accordion, on which he is very accomplished, to the diatonic or triple row accordion. He’s also added to his musical vocabulary through his studies at the University of Lafayette. It’s natural as a young musician like Lil’ Nathan to update the music. He brings in what could be called zydeco rap and bounce while also offering songs and sounds he grew up with. It should be interesting – and fun – to hear father and son layin’ down their distinctive zydeco styles on Sunday.

The seventh annual Cajun-Zydeco Festival runs from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday. The event is presented by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival that in cooperation with the Creole Tomato Festival is also programming Cajun and zydeco music at a stage in the nearby French Market. For the complete music schedule and more information go to www.jazz-andheritage.org/cajun-zydeco.

Pianist Mulgrew Miller Passes
Mulgrew Miller, a renowned jazz pianist of great physical and musical stature, died on Wednesday, May 29, 2013, at the age of 57.

Miller, who played with a who’s who of jazz artists, was born in Greenwood, Mississippi and was residing in Pennsylvania and teaching jazz studies at New Jersey’s William Paterson University. Nonetheless, with all of his New Orleans connections, Miller was considered one of our city’s own. Just last April, the pianist performed with students at the University of New Orleans’ Sandbar series and led a quartet at Snug Harbor with natives drummer Herlin Riley, saxophonist Derek Douget and bassist Jason Stewart.

“It was a wonderful visit,” says Jason Patterson who books the UNO series and Snug Harbor. “He had a great rapport with the kids at the Sandbar and then he did a Masters Class. New Orleans is a piano players’ town, so there was always a great turnout,” adds Patterson, who believes Miller’s initial appearance at Snug was many years ago with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

Miller made his first of many trips to New Orleans at age 20 playing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra led by Mercer Ellington. When he was a member of drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the frontline boasted saxophonist Donald Harrison and trumpeter Terence Blanchard. His New Orleans ties also include playing on saxophonist Branford Marsalis’ first album, 1984’s Scenes in the City and trumpeter Nicholas Payton’s 1995 release From This Moment. Miller made his final of numerous performances at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 2011 as a member of the Golden Striker Trio.

In a 2005 interview Miller offered that he always looked forward to his trips to New Orleans. “I like coming South – I’m from the South. That’s my roots. My upbringing is basically who I am.”

This article originally published in the June 3, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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