Jazz Fest in review: First weekend
6th May 2013 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wyckoff
Excellent musicianship is key to great performances whether listening to local or national jazz artists, a gospel choir, some solid, soul, zydeco, brass bands or anything in between. That’s what it took to make the players and vocalists noted here to be considered to have given some of the best performances during the first weekend of Jazz Fest.
Trombonist Mark McGrain assembled a striking and a bit eccentric cast of New Orleans musicians — saxophonists Tim Green and Tom Fitzpatrick, drummer Johnny Vidacovich and bassist James Singleton — that brought a lot of character to his group that he aptly calls Plunge. Just after noon on Friday, the skies were a light gray as a breeze blew through the Jazz Tent. The creative music that band wove seemed to reflect the weather and the mood it set. A certain, not unpleasant, darkness prevailed with splashes of light emanating from McGrain’s muted trombone and the resonant sparks created by Vidacovich’s splashes on the cymbals. Sousaphonist Kirk Joseph, who is a force in any setting, entered the stage from the sidelines and the band started swinging to a second line rhythm. These musicians proved again the remarkable range that local players display all year round.
A slight delay in programming is hardly a nuisance when there’s an emcee as funny and heartfelt as the woman who filled the time in the Gospel Tent before the St. Joseph the Worker Ministry Choir began its strong set. The approximately 25 men and women who made up the choir were dressed simply yet brightly in a variety of colored T-shirts and sang with much conviction on well-arranged tunes like “We Can Work It Out” as Rosalie “The Tambourine Lady” Washington added rhythmic accompaniment. The Gospel Tent sports a new backdrop of three, stained-glass inspired hangings with two of them rightfully including silhouettes of the late, great Sherman Washington the leader of the Zion Harmonizers who produced and was largely responsible for the tent’s success. Joshua Redman was, not at all surprisingly, a highlight of the day. The stellar saxophonist and a major player on the international jazz scene, Redman mentioned that he, regrettably hadn’t played the festival in 15 years. He and what could certainly be considered an all-star band, offered an incredible set that was perhaps surprisingly romantic with the inclusion of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.” Redman, obviously remembers the beauty of the standards. The performance boasted some edgy moments too with Redman’s sax poppin’, Aaron Goldberg’s spectacular piano work and Kendrick Scott, whose drums were strategically located upfront near the stage’s edge, offering urgency with his sticks and mellowness with his mallets. The band got the large crowd goin’ with some unexpected hot, fun, danceable numbers too.
We’ll start with the best on Saturday — the incredible Puerto Rican pianist Eddie Palmieri. Every musician in his band — his Salsa Orchestra — was an ace and Palmieri was the “Ace of Aces.” As we do in New Orleans, Latinos love their own music, dance to their own music, embrace the rhythms and the spirit. The ensemble opened quietly, classically, soulfully with the wonderfully unpretentious vocalist taking the lead. The sky-high trumpeter kicked it up a notch then the not-to-be demurred, always driving Palmieri, came smiling to the edge of the stage to lead the enthusiastic crowd by clapping in clave rhythms. Palmieri is always a jazz musician and admitted percussionist at heart and to the obvious delight of his band members and the audience, the Grammy-winning pianist interjected a series of adventurous jazz statements into a straight-up salsa that continually invigorated the music. Palmieri remains a giant and was acknowledged as such by a huge ovation.
Dressed in all white with glittering gold lapels on their jackets, the four, mature vocalists of The Voices of Distinction displayed their great range and vigor backed by a strong band. At the end of their infectious set, the emcee said, as a reminder: “Don’t forget your shoes.” They all picked up their high-heeled pumps that were abandoned during their rapture much earlier in the set.
Tyrone Foster stands as the enthusiastic, demanding and always smiling director of the some 30-members of the Arc Singers. He puts the group through the paces with intricate arrangements that include stop time and choreography that found the whole choir leaning back. Remarkably this ensemble is at once traditional and contemporary while always dramatic. “I want participation not spectators,” Foster shouted happily to the crowd. Every soloist to step out of the choir gave a full-on performance. Near the end, in a tribute to the tragedy that took place at the Boston Marathon, a young women softly sang “America the Beautiful” as small American flags were handed out to those in the audience.
The festival gates were opened early on Sunday in anticipation of the deluge — it rained cats and dogs beginning about 11 am. The Gospel Tent became a perfect refuge and a place to head on a Sunday morning to hear the Famous Rocks of Harmony whatever the weather. This veteran nine-piece ensemble, which is a self-contained group complete with a band and is, perhaps, the last of a breed, sings in the old-school, gospel/soul style. There was a lot of testifying goin’ on among “the Rocks” that has performed at Jazz Fest for a remarkable 43 years. “Can you feel the power?” one singer screamed as each vocalist, one as good as the other, handed the microphone around. These are personable guys, stylistically reminiscent of the original Zion Harmonizers, who enjoy making contact with the audience. One member leaned over to shake hands with fans in the front rows.
One of the good things about not having The Nevilles perform as the last act on the last Sunday of Jazz Fest is that hearing them doesn’t mean it’s the end of the festival. That has always been a sweet and sad occasion. So the crowd this day could fully enjoy the funkiness that is full on in the new configuration of the band that is now, of course, minus vocalist Aaron Neville. It’s difficult to ask for more funk than that of Art “Papa Funk” Neville manning an organ next to the keyboards of his nephew, Ivan Neville, whose voice brings yet another element of harmony to the group that already includes the commanding voice of percussionist Cyril Neville. The material too, including the killer, “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman,” was down in the groove with longtime Neville drummer “Mean” Willie Green, layin’ down the rhythm along with bassist Tony Hall. Meanwhile, longtime guitarist Brian Stoltz’s flash teamed well with Art’s son’s, Ian Neville, laid-back, tasty approach complete with interludes by Neville bro’ Charles Neville’s sax. At one point Ivan suggested people “close your eyes and imagine you are in Tipitina’s in 1979.” Yes, that’s a sound we remember.
Sunday was a day to remember the unforgettable “Uncle” Lionel Batiste, a man and a musician who continues to walk among those who knew him every day. His brother, Norman Batiste, led the afternoon parade and a much-expanded Tremé Brass Band, led by snare drummer and Batiste’s life-long friend, Benny Jones, paid tribute to the much-loved bass drummer and vocalist to close the Economy Hall Tent. The skies cried for “Unk” just as they did the day of his funeral.
This article originally published in the May 6, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.