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Jazz Fest – Stevie Wonder returns and the rhythms go Cuban

24th April 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

It’s, well, just a wonder that the incredible music master Stevie Wonder found it in his heart to return to the 2017 edition of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (Friday, April 28 — Sunday, April 30 and Thursday, May 4 — Sunday, May 7). Last year, the extraordinary pianist/vocalist/harmonica player and composer’s scheduled performance was unfortunately, yet rightfully, canceled due to terrible, and we do mean awful, weather — torrential rain, lighting and wind. Yikes.

Some less soulful and caring artists, wary of repeat weather conditions, might have declined this year’s invite. But Wonder, being who he is, his love of New Orleans and his loyalty to his fans, agreed to come back and fulfill his promise for a memorable set. He’s playing the second weekend, of course, closing the Acura Stage on Saturday, May 6, yet even at the Fest’s onset, the anticipation for his show remains way high.



This year, Jazz Fest celebrates Cuba and its many connections with New Orleans music and culture. Cuban musicians will abound not only at the specifically designated Cultural Exchange Pavilion, a small tent that glows happily with its intimacy, but also at various stages around the Fair Grounds.

The Pedrito Martinez Group, led by percussionist/vocalist Martinez is highly represented throughout the weekend. A frequent visitor to this city, Martinez once said, “The only reason that I’m not living in New Orleans is because I’m stupid. It’s a very inspiring city.”

New Orleanians, particularly musicians, who have been lucky enough to visit Cuba, and Cuban artists who have come here all express that their experiences have led to their greater realization of how much their countries have in common. For instance, Conga Los Hoyos stands as a second line band in the island nation just as Rebirth or any other New Orleans brass band does on this city’s streets. It’s got its sharp-stepping dancers, heavy percussion and in Cuba, Chinese cornets replacing trumpets.



Septeto Nacional Ignacio Pineiro prides itself on its amazing 90 year history and its legacy of expanding the historic son style. It definitely looks to some straight-up jazz too with instrumentation that include acoustic piano, trumpet, bongos, maracas and vocals.

Some more contemporary, urban sounds come from Telmary y Habana Sana that collaborated with pianist/vocalist/composer Dr. John in a tribute to trumpet legend Louis Armstrong. It is a small world after all.

When in doubt, go to the Gospel Tent — it always swings — is a Jazz Fest motto to rely on. The first weekend includes the old-school traditional style of Leo Jackson & the Melody Clouds that was first established in 1965. This group knows how to testify. At noon on Sunday, April 30, the gospel community will pay tribute to the much-loved vocalist Jo “Cool” Davis, who passed away last year. He will always be remembered for closing his set with a wonderful rendition of Sam Cooke’s “Touch the Hem of His Garment.”

On Saturday, New Orleans legendary clarinetist Pete Fountain will be honored with a second line led by the Storyville Stompers and the Half Fast Marching Club. His image will be placed in the Ancestors area of the Fair Grounds alongside other Louisiana greats.

This might be the last chance for some, or the first time for others, to see the suits created by the Mardi Gras Indians for the 2017 Carnival. Catch the spectacle and the rhythms of the Black Indians on parade or at the dance-friendly Jazz & Heritage Stage.

Here We Go with the First Weekend’s Picks
Friday, April 28, 2017

National Fav: Aaron Neville, Blues Tent, 5:45 p.m. It’s a real treat to have vocalist supreme Aaron Neville performing in his hometown twice in one month. As he did at the recent French Quarter Festival, he’ll be leading his quintet that includes his brother Charles on saxophone plus two other New Orleans’ natives, drummer/vocalist Earl Smith Jr. and pianist Michael Goods plus bassist/vocalist Michael Johnson. Expect some tunes from his new release, Apache, some doo-wop, rhythm and blues and more.

Local Fav: It’s a toss up. Kermit Ruffins & the Barbecue Swingers, Acura Stage, 3:30 p.m. and Harry Connick Jr., Acura Stage, 5:25 p.m. Okay, you don’t really have to choose between these two, very different, New Orleans icons as one follows the other. Ruffins is fun and stylistically dedicated to Louis Armstrong. Connick’s mentor was the incredible pianist James Booker. These guys got the right roots.

Personal Fav: The Pedrito Martinez Group, Congo Square, 2:30 p.m. The master percussionist and vocalist leads his forward-thinking, Afro-Cuban quartet the influences of which include his Cuban heritage and New York residences. The result is music based on tradition topped with a modern and funky approach.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

National Fav: Usher & The Roots, Congo Square, 5:25 p.m. Okay, wow. The legendary, multi-Grammy winning vocalist Usher performs with one of the best bands in the land, the Roots. The group, including drummer Questlove, who’s a frequent visitor to New Orleans usually in the capacity of a turntable-driving DJ, backs anybody and everybody on “The Tonight with Jimmy Fallon,” with funkin’ superb kicks. Talk about don’t miss.



Local Fav: Jon Batiste & Stay Human, Acura Stage, 3:25 p.m. It’s a big time welcome home for keyboardist/vocalist/composer Jon Batiste who has now been seen by millions as the musical director and band leader for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Batiste, a New Orleans native, is bringing in his whole Stay Human band that performs with him every weekday night. Expect energy and big smiles all around.

Personal Fav: The Jazz Epistles featuring Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya and Hugh Masekela, Jazz Tent, 4:15 p.m. This reunion of South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) stunningly represents these musical, social and political giants, coming together as they did in their homeland over 55 years ago. The Jazz Epistles were the first all Black jazz group in South Africa. Their power prevails through the decades.
Sunday, April 30, 2017

National Fav: George Benson, Jazz Tent, 5:40 p.m. George Benson was first known on the scene as a brilliant guitarist working with legends like organist Jack McDuff and trumpeter Miles Davis. He gained a wider audience for his vocal abilities in 1976 with his release of Breezin’ that included “This Masquerade.” Benson’s reputation as an informed jazz guitarist and welcoming vocalist continues.

Local Fav: Dr. John and the Gris Gris Krewe, Acura Stage, 3:16 p.m. Well, actually, Dr. John is New Orleans pianist/vocalist/composer/raconteur Mac Rebennack, a one-time guitarist and studio musician who took on the persona of the mystical Dr. John when he was out in California. Mac boasts both qualities — a Crescent City musician that represents this quirky city and a true master of his instrument and his art. New band, same incredible Dr. John.

Personal Fav: Big Chief Monk Boudreaux & the Golden Eagles, Jazz and Heritage Stage, 5:35 p.m. Monk Boudreaux simply represents one of the most soulful voices in the Black Indian Nation. Verbally, he is a griot, much in the African tradition, telling the tales of his people and their rhythm. He is art.

This article originally published in the April 24, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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