Jazz Fest – ’Tween the Weekends
22nd April 2014 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wyckoff
In a casual sense, Jazz Fest isn’t necessarily thought of as strictly the seven days of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (April 26 through April 28 and May 1 through May 4) but the entire week bookended by those dates. The clubs beef up their scheduling and special events abound all over town.
A favorite among locals and visitors for the last 26 years is Piano Night that takes place on Monday, April 29 at the House of Blues. As the name proclaims, the annual show, a fundraiser for community radio station WWOZ-90.7 FM puts the spotlight on New Orleans keyboardists from a broad spectrum of genres. That’s as it should be as our pianists like Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint and Professor Longhair became ambassadors in helping to shine a bright light on this city.
Three stages at the HOB will be active throughout the night manned by the cream of New Orleans keyboardists including Jon Cleary, Davell Crawford, Nigel Hall, Marcia Ball and more plus visiting artist, jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut. The event will honor the legendary pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis who will also perform.
“I appreciate the fact that they decided to do that,” says the always-humble Marsalis. “I’m gonna have to go and practice some songs that I intend to play so I make sure I know them well enough,” he adds with a laugh.
In its infancy when it was held at Tipitina’s, Piano Night primarily paid tribute to Professor Longhair with most of the artists playing his tunes or rhythm and blues classics. Marsalis recalls the first time he heard Fess at the old Labor Union Hall on Peters Street.
“I just remember being totally amazed at what he was doing – it was his rhythmic approach,” Marsalis offers. “Then I would hear him off and on in later years and sometimes he would playing a Fender Rhodes. That was ridiculous because Fess wasn’t a Fender Rhodes piano player.”
Though he never heard the incredible Huey “Piano” Smith perform in person, he did see him when the two were students at S.P. Ricard Elementary School in Central City. On a local level, Marsalis was most influenced by the late great pianist Edward Frank and nationally by Oscar Peterson. As for the young players he’d like to see eventually invited to Piano Night, Marsalis names NOCCA student Jordan Baker. “I’m hoping he will play more on the scene.”
Marsalis also just released a very upbeat album, On the Second Occasion, on his ELM label that was recorded in 2003. It includes some rapid-fire tunes including the only original, the pianist’s “Things You Never Were.” Marsalis’ longtime bassist, the wonderful Bill Huntington, who moved away following Katrina, contributes greatly to the sound and ambiance of the disc.
“I spent a lot of years playing with Bill. I met Bill – we often joked about it – at a time when the Louisiana law didn’t even allow us to sit down and have a cup of coffee together. When Bill first started working with me it was a unique opportunity to play with somebody whose melodic perception was the same as mine. It was in the same mold as (bassist) Scotty LaFaro who was playing with (pianist) Bill Evans.”
Ellis’ son drummer Jason Marsalis, rounds out the CD and induces a smile with his always inventive solos particularly on the multi-rhythmic interpretation of the 1963 Drifter’s hit, “On Broadway.”
“Well Jason does unusual drum solos on everything,” Marsalis says of his – one of three musically talented – son. “I’ll have to go back and listen to it again,” he adds laughing after hearing that some might find the solo reminiscent of a marching band drum cadence. Of the diverse and danceable flavor of the cut, Marsalis offers, “I kinda went groovy on that. I remember what Cannonball (saxophonist Cannonball Adderley) said when he came here the last time. He said, ‘Man I love all my fast chops.’”
Ellis Marsalis will expand his ensemble for his Jazz Fest set on Saturday, May 3, in the Jazz Tent. The group will include Jason Marsalis, saxophonist Derrick Douget, bassist Jason Stewart, trumpeter Ashlin Parker and NOCCA student trombonist Jeffrey Miller.
Electrifying the Civic Theatre
The American Routes – Live at the Civic Theatre show has a line-up that reads like running from Jazz Fest’s Economy Hall Tent, over to the Fais Do-Do Stage, moving on to the Blues Tent and heading to the Gospel Tent. The event that takes place on April 29 and is being produced by popular National Public Radio program and hosted by Nick Spitzer features, clarinetist Michael White and the Original Liberty Jazz Band, Cajun stalwart Beausoleil ave Michael Doucet, guitarist Little Freddie King and the gospel group the Electrifying Crown Seekers.
“We go wherever we’re called to go,” says the Electrifying Crown Seekers leader, guitarist James Williams Sr. The group, now celebrating its 49th year, he says, doesn’t usually have the opportunity to perform amongst such mixed company.
The Crown Seekers – the “Electrifying” adjective became a part of its name some 15 years ago because of its constant use by WYLD deejay Wilson Howard – have been a staple of Jazz Fest for decades. It returns to its rightful place closing the Gospel Tent on Saturday, April 26. The Seekers, whose members all hail from across the Mississippi, is renowned for its solid musicianship, country-western flair, the hair flying testifying on “Old Revival” by singer Lloyd Fradieu and the incredible falsetto of Gregory Sanders. He sings “Walk Around Heaven” totally in falsetto and then goes up (!) for the high notes.
Leader Williams says that he grew to love country music as a child growing up in Mississippi when the only radio station they could catch was a country station. A fine guitarist who appreciates a broad range of styles, Williams remembers that when he was a kid he would play in church on Sundays and then hop on stage at barrooms on Friday and Saturday nights. That was until his mother found out what her 13-year-old son was up to. “She whipped me,” Williams recalls and since then he’s stuck to church music except for occasionally sitting in with a band to do some Sam Cooke or Howlin’ Wolf songs.
The eight-piece group, which includes Williams’ wife, Lynn Williams on keyboards and vocals, his son drummer Keith Williams and Lynn’s cousin, vocalist Sanders, have recorded extensively. Its latest album is Thank God For Saving Me. The Crown Seekers are also the subject of a documentary, “By and By” produced by Joe Compton.
“I love this group because we can sing anything,” declares Williams. “I love Jazz Fest because of the excitement of the people. I like to make people happy and our singing seems to make them happy. But also we’re trying to get people to come to God. That’s the main thing.”
This article originally published in the April 21, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.