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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2010/05/19
by John Zinkand

Jazz Fest: The Setting, The Food, The Music

The Music

Last but not least, of course, is the music. This is the very heart of the Jazzfest experience. But the city of New Orleans breathes music and you could visit here any time of the year and be satiated by the huge array of musical options. Walking down Bourbon Street, we must have passed fifty bars with live music. From punk, to 80s covers, to southern rock, country, and jazz…if you really want to find a certain kind of music, you should be able to find it here if you poke around enough. It seems like everyone in town can play some instrument or another, too. The houses near the Jazzfest have festive signs and posters and the music is always blaring from a few windows. Street musicians abound so you’re never far from someone playing a sax or an acoustic guitar. We walked by small brass bands multiple times out on the streets in random places mostly made up of kids playing their hearts out for whoever was walking by. There were even church bells that rang loudly as we walked down to PJ’s each morning to pick up our morning espresso. Basically, wherever you are in this city there is some sort of music to accompany you.

The festival offers the biggest volume of choices and options during the two weeks of the event, but the bars and clubs offer up tons of choices each night where the musicians can play full shows, stretch out a bit, and play with other musicians and friends in unique combinations. In 2002 at my first Jazz Festival, my focus was definitely on the shows after hours. I saw Karl Denson, Gov’t Mule, moe., Umphrey’s McGee, The Disco Biscuits, etc. often dancing and partying until day break. This year I saw two shows in the evening and concentrated on music mainly at the festival.

On Wednesday night after arriving into town around 8:30pm, we decided to check out the Megalomaniacs Ball at the Howlin’ Wolf. This monster event included performances by Mike Dillon’s Go-Go Jungle, The Dead Kenny G’s, Marco Benevento Trio, The Stanton Moore Trio, and Garage A Trois. Basically, all the members of the different bands overlap so the music was pretty much non-stop and flowed well. Of course, the Dead Kenny G’s fronted by Skerik and Mike Dillon can stem the flow with odd ranting or crazy squawks and noises, but overall the show kept a steady groove. With this solid cast of musical characters to keep things interesting, the music rocked and rolled us all night long. Well, not all night as we probably left around 2am. While the place was not packed, it was pleasantly full of folks dancing and drinking and having fun. We chatted with random revelers throughout the evening and I even spotted my local bartender from the Goodfoot back in Portland who informed me that she does Jazzfest pretty much every year as a vacation. Nice! It truly feels like one big, happy, music-loving family in New Orleans during Jazzfest!

Our other night out during this trip was Friday night’s excursion on the Riverboat Creole Queen with the North Mississippi All-Stars. How could we pass up a chance to see the North Mississippi All-Stars while boating on the Mississippi River? It was probably the high-point of the weekend for me. The boat contained three levels, and we immediately headed to the top level after climbing aboard. There was a brass band playing in the open air and we grabbed a few beers and found some seats. The breeze kept us cool as we chatted and took in the scenery of the river and downtown from our perch atop the boat. There was food available on the main level for five bucks (not great, but sustenance nonetheless) as well as an additional full bar. And the band set up on the bottom floor where, you guessed it, there was another full bar. In no time at all, the band was rocking the boat big time. Luther was on fire and obviously having a great time. While Cody was not there, the sit-in drummers performed very well (including a very young girl playing for a good chunk of the first set, if not all of it). It got hot and sweaty down there quickly as everyone danced as energetically as the band played. After a short set break and a seriously rocking second set, we were docked once again. It was such a grand time that the evening went by in a blur, but we walked happily back to the apartment for a few more drinks and additional hang time before crashing for the evening.

Then there’s the festival proper. Too much of a good thing is a good problem to have, and we had that problem every day we attended. We started each day off with a soul-soaking in the Gospel Tent. Witnessing a huge choir sing and sway with a full on rhythm section backing them up was incredible. Such soul, power, and beauty! This was consistently one of my favorite places to be. While I don’t know the songs and am far from being a religious person, it’s easy for anyone to catch the power and meaning and soul of the performances in the Gospel Tent. At times the director would have different sections of the band singing and he would almost “jam” them, singing different staccato notes until it all merged together into an amazing peak. It was a truly inspirational sight to behold.

Thursday festival highlights included a great main stage set by Dumpstaphunk. Ivan Neville and the boys slammed through tune after tune of funky goodness, but also tempered the set with a good deal of social awareness. At one point they encouraged us to take any bad vibes or experiences we may have had recently and just “put it in the Dumpsta!” The band was into it and the mid-day crowd lapped it right up. It was also very interesting to see Steve Martin play banjo with his band the Steep Canyon Rangers. The crowd was huge and packed in tight for this set, so it was tough to get very close, but we could hear fine and could see the band on one of the massive screens. It was traditional bluegrass music, but played very well and I was impressed by Mr. Martin’s talents on the banjo. He is truly multi-talented.

On Friday we were feeling the effects of multiple days of partying, so we arrived a little later. We ambled over to the Main Stage and took in a few minutes of a performance by The Dixie Cups. The three female vocalists seemed amateurish at best, and when they broke into a pretty bad version of Footloose, we knew we had enough. Scratching our heads as to why they were even playing the Main Stage, we headed over to catch some of Kermit Ruffins’ set. He played such crowd pleasers as What A Wonderful World, When the Saints Go Marching In, and I Can See Clearly Now. And while entertaining, it was a bit lighter than my usual choice of music. But it was nice to sway in the breeze to these well-known tunes for a bit. Next was a performance by the Forgotten Souls Brass Band that bumped things up a few notches. This was a huge brass band that had everyone on their feet dancing. There was even a guy dressed up as a skeleton dancing on stage the entire time and the band told interesting stories about New Orleans, other musicians, and fun times at the festival. And we topped the day off at the Jazz Tent taking in a performance by the amazing Stanley Clarke on bass accompanied by piano virtuoso Hiromi. This was also one of my musical high points. I’m a huge Stanley fan. But add Hiromi playing the piano with such grace and energy, and this was something truly amazing. The two played beautifully together and this set flew by in no time due to its dazzling display of musicianship. Had she not cancelled, we probably would have seen Aretha Franklin during this time slot, so I’m almost happy she did!

Saturday’s highlight was a jaw-dropping performance by Brian Blade and the Fellowship back at the Jazz Tent. Brian is a virtuoso jazz drummer and his talents are a treat to watch. The drums are not merely a rhythmic instrument when he plays them, but a dynamic instrument used to ebb and flow with the music. He had some amazing horn players in the band and they were egged on by Blade’s incredible drumming to some very intense musical high points. Later in the day we also took in a performance by Marcus Miller playing the music of Miles Davis also at the Jazz Tent. Marcus is one of the best bass players on the planet right now, and his soloing during the performance with his slaps and pops was astounding, as usual. But the set felt more like a showcase for solos than as a band working together. Because the instrumentalists were all so talented, the set was still very enjoyable, but after having witnessed Brian Blade earlier in the day producing such a complete sound while also displaying such incredible technical prowess, the Marcus Miller set seemed just a tiny bit flat by comparison.

By Sunday we were exhausted and the rain helped make it easy to loaf even longer in the apartment before making our way over to the festival grounds. It was drizzling when we arrived, but everyone had ponchos, umbrellas, garbage bags, or some other way to repel the evil rain. Most of the time it was only sprinkling, so coming from Portland, the fear of the rain seemed odd to me. Highlights of the final day included a rousing rhythm and blues set by Luther Kent in the Blues Tent chock full of fun sax and guitar solos. We caught a tune or two of Van Morrison before the rain really started coming down hard and we found a tent for shelter. The festival ended for us back at the Jazz Tent for more drumming of Brain Blade…but this time he was paired with John Patitucci on bass and Wayne Shorter on saxophone. Nagging sound problems for the bass aside, this was also an incredible set and a fitting, jazzy way to finish out the festival.

There are a million ways to enjoy this Festival and no one way is correct. I could have seen completely different music, enjoyed completely different food, and gone to all different shows, shops, bars and restaurants and still had an awesome time. And that’s part of what makes this event so great. There are so many options that it can seem overwhelming, but in a very good way. The best approach is to run headlong into it and soak up as many sights, sounds, and tastes as you can. The food, the incredible town, the well-run festival itself, and the thousands of great people who attend each year make this one of the most important musical events in the world. While anyone can find something to complain about (I heard reasons like long bathroom lines, too crowded, and too expensive), it’s easy to embrace all that is good and wonderful about this festival. I, for one, cannot wait for the chance to experience it an entirely new and different way as soon as possible. Happy Jazzfest, ya’all!

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