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Jazz Fest 2012: The first weekend in review

7th May 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

It’s great to wake up during Jazz Fest days and not have to worry about the weather. With no thunderstorms in the forecast, the first weekend of the Fest provided that luxury. It was even relatively cool temperature-wise.

Getting started with the El­ectrifying Crown Seekers on Friday, however, could be described as anything but cool. Always a crowd-pleaser, the veteran group from Marrero was particularly on fire. As people entered the Gospel Tent for this 11:15 a.m. set, they were immediately greeted by Greg Sanders stunning rendition of the “Lord’s Prayer.” Sanders, who has gained a huge reputation for his remarkable falsetto work especially on his signature rendition of “Walk Around Heaven All Day,” sang lead on more songs than usual during this performance. Everyone in the group added their particular flair be it the rhythm and blues style screaming on “Old Time Revival Going On” or the more country-flavored “Play My Troubles Away.” Incidentally, Sanders turned up at the very next set to sing with the Wimberly Family Gospel Singers.

The motto: “When in doubt, go the Gospel Tent” proved itself to be good advice once again. The Heavenly Melodies Gospel Singers kicked off Saturday morning with style. Dazzling in their bright red and yellow outfits, this traditional group filled with mothers, daughters, sons and cousins, is all about family. Those more familiar with secular music than gospel might have recognized bassist/vocalist Cornell Williams and guitarist Big D, who are best known as members of Jon Cleary’s Absolute Monster Gentlemen, backing the ensemble. It’s easy to see where Williams got his talent as it was his mother playing the organ so wonderfully and seemingly effortlessly. Some might also have recognized the lead vocalist of the group for his many years with the Friendly Travelers.

Later that day, the Gospel Tent exploded on the arrival of multiple Grammy and Stellar award-winning Israel Houghton and New Breed. The New Orleans gospel community was definitely “in the house.” No matter what age an audience member was—from teens to seniors—it seemed they knew all the words to the songs. Naturally the repertoire included hits like the invigorating “Rejoice in the Lord” and “All Around,” performed by the group that was complete with a full band and female vocalists backing Houghton’s strong vocals and guitar.

The extremely energetic and athletic Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 played the Afrobeat style familiar to many through his father Fela Kuti, Cheikh Lo of Senegal offered a different, more laid-back vibe. Colorfully attired and blessed with a voice that projected across the Congo Square field, Lo offered a hypnotic set infused with a superior talking drum player and jazz infused saxophone.

Sunday could have been declared accordion day as it often turned up beyond its expected home at the Fais Do-Do Stage. Even there, where zydeco and Cajun music reign, the squeeze box enjoyed a special moment when C. J. Chenier stepped out on the small stage. Even from afar one could see that the keys on the instrument were yellow with age. “This is Big Black Girl,” C.J. said, introducing the accordion that his father, the King of Zydeco Clifton Chenier, used to play. C.J. then went into a fine, warm tune, “I Want to Comfort You,” that melodically was reminiscent of Clifton’s heart-wrenching “I’m Comin’ Home.”

Just steps away, the group Lindigo from the Reunion Island, a French Island in the Indian Ocean, also utilized an accordion. Its style stood as a reminder of the breadth of the African diaspora. Later in the day, the Debo Band, an Ethiopian Groove Collective, got the crowd dancing at the Jazz & Heritage Stage, which, with its lack of chairs, is one of the most fun and dance-friendly areas at the Fair Grounds. (Don’t try dancing at the Blues Tent!) Debo’s mix of musical influences and instruments—accordion, tuba, bongos, violin, saxophone—­plus its ethnically diverse musicians made for many variations. Sometimes it even sounded surprisingly a lot like zydeco.

New Orleans large ensembles—the Irvin Mayfield’s New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and vocalist Stephanie Jordan’s Big Band—both presented strong programs. Particularly impressive was the NOCCA Jazz Ensemble that opened the Jazz Tent on Sunday. The senor edition of NOCCA’s two combos included New Orleans students, trumpeter Glenn Hall III and saxophonist Miles Berry, who would play with the legendary pianist Herbie Hancock the following morning to celebrate the first International Jazz Day. At both events they, along with the entire group of musicians, really impressed with the command of their instruments particularly on some challenging original material.

Watching the river of people heading to the Acura Stage to hear superstar Bruce Springsteen, one had to wonder how many new fans Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, who would play the same venue earlier, would gain. He sounded great adding all those trombone slurs on “On Your Way Down” and showing off his falsetto.

Nicholas Payton sat behind the keyboards for his entire closing set at the Jazz Tent even when he was blowing trumpet. Payton was in excellent company with monster drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, who also played the Jazz Day event on Monday, and bassist Vincent Archer. Considering Payton’s versatility, nothing really comes as a surprise, nonetheless his set offered more standards than expected. They were, of course, turned inside out by these exploratory jazz masters.

On a fairly recent blog, Payton raised eyebrows by declaring that jazz was dead. He might have proved himself wrong on this day. Because whatever one might think jazz is, that’s what was going down by some of the world’s best—Payton, Watts and Archer.

This article was originally published in the May 7, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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