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Live Review: 38th New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

James Carter

James Carter set the standard on the opening day of the 38th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. While his talents on a multitude of reed instruments are well known in modern jazz circles, he expanded his sphere of admirers with an explosive performance that was particularly in tune with the Crescent City. Audiences here are accustomed to those on the bandstand enjoying themselves and sharing the love. That important aspect, which many believe grew out of the classic jazz tradition, is sometimes misunderstood and considered not a serious approach to the music, though it has proven itself worthy in the voices of such legends as Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Sun Ra, as well as such New Orleans purveyors as drummer Herlin Riley and pianist David Torkanowsky.

After the set, Gerald Gibbs, the organist in this happy trio that also features drummer Leonard King, offered that the similarities between his Detroit home and New Orleans-their sizes and deep musical and family roots-might factor into the musicians’ warm approach.

Gibbs was among a wealth of keyboardists that particularly shined both as leaders and sidemen during the Fest’s first, weather-blessed weekend. Aaron Parks added mightily to trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s elegant set, which benefited from much-appreciated improved sound at the Jazz Tent. The venue’s new location, a long run from most of the other stages, benefited from the attentiveness of its audience members, who were there to listen to jazz rather than look for a shady spot to sit down and eat an oyster poboy. The downside of it being off the beaten path meant that fewer people and potential fans were exposed to the music than in the past.

Blanchard also popped up at Pharoah Sanders’ spiritually energetic performance. And in keeping with the keyboard theme that seemed to prevail from Friday to Sunday, William Henderson made his own statement as the faces of young musicians from the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA) peeked over the back of the stage, undoubtedly there to pick up some chops. The next day, a recent NOCCA graduate, pianist Jonathan Batiste, stole the show playing with the Juilliard Jazz Ensemble.

The new “standing room only” policy that prohibits chairs from the front of the two main stages on the Fair Grounds’ race track infield, boosted the sets from New Orleans piano wizards Henry Butler and John Cleary who, along with Davell Crawford and Ivan Neville, remain the sound of the city with their fusion of jazz/funk/R&B/gospel styles.

Kidd Jordan was a vision of silver with his hair and his horn shining as brilliantly as his creative music. As the only free jazz player of the weekend, the saxophonist and his bandmates, including bassist William Parker, intensified the atmosphere under the canvas, though Jordan almost surprisingly revisited melodic and even romantic passages.

While the festival’s second weekend boasted equally rich music, it will be remembered for the monsoon-like rainstorm that for two hours stopped the outdoor stages and held folks captive wherever they landed at its onset. By the time the World Sax Group with WSQ originators Hamiet Bluiett and Oliver Lake plus James Carter and Greg Osby came on, the skies were clear again. It was odd to see this ensemble minus David Murray, but again, Carter kicked hard and brought joy to a set that, without any extraneous instruments or vocals, was reminiscent of the WSQ’s earlier endeavors.

James Singleton and Roland Guerin are two of New Orleans’ finest and most adventurous bass players. For their fest date, they joined forces to create Woodshed, a concept that many felt could go either way. It went up. Singleton handled most of the acoustic duties and Guerin the electric. Their mutual admiration and compatibility was emphatic during their duet, performing the apt “Alone Together.” It brought to mind the terrific pairings of electric koras in the group Ba Cissoko of the Republic of Guinea, which the week before mesmerized the uninitiated to the possibilities of the traditional instrument. The description of Africa meets Jimi Hendrix proved to be right on.

The final day of Jazz Fest is always bittersweet but the news of the passing of modern jazz clarinetist and educator extraordinaire Alvin Batiste, who was to be acknowledged that day in recognition of his new CD, Marsalis Music Honors: Alvin Batiste, was devastating to all that knew him, learned from him, played with him, listened to him. As the title of one of his memorable tunes long ago ensured, the “Music Came,” despite the sorrow. A one-time student, trumpeter Maurice Brown, blew his optimistic “Bat’s Ordeal” and Batiste would have been proud of the professionalism displayed by his young disciples: bassist Max Moran (cousin of pianist Jason Moran), pianist Conun Pappas and drummer Joe Dyson from NOCCA.

The humanity that was Batiste’s essence glowed from all of those he touched during a two-hour-plus tribute from a series of artists and groups, including drummer Bob French, saxophonist Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. As is the tradition in New Orleans, the life of Alvin Batiste was celebrated as his death was mourned with a brass band entourage blowing and people dancing to classics like “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and “I’ll Fly Away.”

Originally Published