05/07/01

New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival 2001

Has the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival become too much of a good thing? That's a question that was on the minds and in the mouths of more than a few concertgoers on Sat. May 5, the second-to-last day of the sprawling celebration of regional and international jazz, blues and roots music, pop, rock and rap.

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Soulive (L-R): Alan Evans, Eric Krasno, Toussaint and Neal Evans

The Jazz Tent, where pianist and famous father Ellis Marsalis held forth on mainstream modern jazz with a variety of players, including sons Delfeayo and Jason on trombone and drums, respectively, was so crowded that it was next to impossible to catch even a glimpse of the stage, much less find a seat inside.

Not too far away, on one of the two largest stages at Jazz Fest, young hoodoo-blues wizards the North Mississippi All Stars aired out "Po Black Maddie" and some of the other trancey slide-guitar jams heard on their debut disc, last year's "Shake Hands With Shorty." It was a challenge, though, working oneself into a position to see the onstage action via a giant video screen, and an even more difficult task attempting to escape the mass of sun-baked revelers.

That feeling of being crushed by a horde wasn't just an illusion. Jazz Fest, thanks in part to organizers' possibly ill-advised decision to book jammy hitmaker Dave Matthews and thoughtlessly late-arriving Crescent City hip-hopper Mystikal, broke its single-day attendance record last Saturday. More than 160,000 people crammed into the Fair Grounds Race Track, beating the previous record of 98,000, according to a report in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. The event's seven-day attendance, over the course of two long weekends, jumped to 618,000 from 466,000 last year.

The festival's 11 venues again offered an appealing smorgasbord of compelling sounds, along with mouth-watering Louisiana food specialties, and a variety of traditional arts and crafts. And the weather, at least for the second weekend, was spectacular-sunny and considerably less muggy than in previous years.

Jazz Fest, however, mostly meant A-grade music, great food and good vibes. The intense crowding, though, was something of a downer. Will festival officials continue to sacrifice the event's quality-of-life factors-room to roam from stage to stage, ability to actually watch and hear the acts one wants to see-for quantity of ticket proceeds? Will anyone put a sensible cap on attendance, like, say, 100,000 for a single day? Will any efforts be made to alleviate this problem? Time will tell.

Meanwhile, a sort of alternative fest is springing up in the shadow of Jazz Fest, thanks largely to the efforts of Superfly Presents, a New Orleans concert promotion company specializing in jam bands, mostly of the variety rooted in funk and jazz. Superfly Presents, organized partly as a result of the overflow crowd that showed up to see Phish at Jazz Fest in 1996, this year presented more than 35 shows at nine area venues. The concerts, for the first time including mainstream jazz performances by pianist McCoy Tyner and saxophonist Joshua Redman, had a potential audience of as many as 40,000 people, according to New Orleans magazine Offbeat.

The jam-band shows, those presented by Superfly and others, amounted to a festival of music in that genre, with a lot of mixing and matching and intermingling going on. Garage a Trois, with Hunter's fluid eight-string guitar/bass playing and Skerik's similarly agile saxophone work topping rhythms driven home by Galactic's Moore and percussionist Mike Dillon (a member of Critters Buggin', with Skerik) rocked the house until the wee hours last Wednesday at Tipitina's Uptown.

Soulive, an updated organ trio with a new CD, Doin' Something, out on Blue Note, began their sold-out show at the House of Blues' side club, the Parish, at 1:45 on Sunday morning and didn't stop until nearly 5:30 a.m. Guitarist Eric Krasno, B-3 organist Neal Evans and drummer Alan Evans were joined by alto saxophonist Sam Kininger and special guest guitarist Mark Whitfield for new and older original material and covers of tunes by Stevie Wonder, the Righteous Brothers and War. And they did it all over again the next night.

Also on the list of jam bands (and related acts) in town, under the auspices of Superfly and other presenters: Medeski, Martin and Wood, Jazz Mandolin Project, Galactic, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, String Cheese Incident, DJ Logic and Project Logic, Deep Banana Blackout, Critters Buggin', Robert Walter's 20th Congress, the Disco Biscuits, Moore and More, and Mike Clark's Prescription Renewal. Call it the Berkfest of the South.

Superfly's annual Superjam, the one that last year brought together Stewart Copeland, Les Claypool and Trey Anastasio as Oysterhead, this time offered another eclectic, one-of-a-kind mix at the historic Saenger Theater, with singer-bassist Me'Shell NdegeOcello joined by saxophonist Redman, downtown New York guitarist Marc Ribot, and keyboardist John Medeski of Medeski Martin and Wood. Dave Matthews Band drummer Carter Beauford, he of the spaceship-sized trap kit, was a bit out of place, making grand gestures where subtlety was called for, and generally proving too inflexible for the good of the jams. Give the group an A for effort (and the sound man a D for failing to fix the overloaded, distorted bass-guitar sound), but few creative sparks were ignited, with the exception of a funk riff led by Redman. Maybe next time.

More impressive than the hyped all-star band was the evening's opening act, Los Hombres Calientes. Trumpeter and Jazz Fest MVP Irvin Mayfield and percussionist Bill Summers led an exhilarating charge through the modern jazz, Latin, African, Caribbean and funk textures heard on the group's just-released Vol. 3: New Congo Square, on homegrown label Basin Street. The sextet, with bassist Edwin Livingston, pianist Victor "Red" Atkins, percussionist Yvette Summers and Ricky Sebastian in the drum chair this time (Jaz Sawyer did the duties at an earlier in-store performance), was joined by a horn section and guest pianist Ronald Markham for a set that included the new "Foforo Fo Firi" and Miles Davis' "Milestones." Said Summers, to the audience: "If you feel the spirit, rise!"

And they did.

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