At an event before the 49th New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, producer Quint Davis announced that Jazz Fest would not be focusing on a particular country as part of its booking theme this year. In honor of the city’s tricentennial, he said, “New Orleans is the country we’re celebrating.”
Given the obsessively self-referential culture here, it was a fitting approach. And although the spirit of the Crescent City was evident in plenty of specific programming features, it also made itself known in less explicit ways over the course of the festival, which ran from April 27 to May 6 at the Fair Grounds race track.
In many cases, it was unexpected moments, involving both local and visiting artists, that fueled the fest’s vitality. Among them were memorable firsts for New Orleans acts who seem poised to move up to new career levels. There were homecomings, both for Kidd Jordan, who hadn’t played the Fest in some years, and for singers Tarriona “Tank” Ball (of 2017 NPR Tiny Desk Contest winners Tank and the Bangas) and Quiana Lynell (winner of the 2017 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition), who couldn’t help but share how it felt to be home amid demanding tour schedules.
An impromptu homegoing celebration, meanwhile, took place at stages across the grounds in honor of Charles Neville, who passed away April 26. Aaron Neville promised the crowd that his brother was “here in spirit.” One of the most moving remembrances came from Charles Lloyd, who announced a gentle “prayer” for Neville before digging into his set with the Marvels and Lucinda Williams. With the bright sound of his horn carving out a quietly soaring spiritual at a somber pace, Lloyd seemed to be playing directly to the departed saxophonist. The band went on to perform a mostly uptempo set peppered with Lloyd’s delicate flute work. Eventually they settled into the blues feel required of the new Marvels material as well as Williams’ hits, many of which included shout-outs to Louisiana, her home for many years.
Further hometown unity was at the heart of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO)’s first Jazz Fest performance with Adonis Rose as its artistic director. The sprawling ensemble opened with a hard-hitting take on “Sing, Sing, Sing” before Rose left his drum chair to conduct. As he did, the bandmembers clapped and cheered support for one another’s playing. When an eleventh-grade NOCCA sax student sat in and took an early solo, she seemed to relax, take more risks, and play with more power as the band made it clear they approved of where she was taking the music.
Representing the less serious side of the festival’s über-New Orleans focus, Nicholas Payton’s Too Black project served up a witty homage to those forced to drink bad wine while traveling. At the start of his performance, the trumpeter, keyboardist and composer showcased softly muted, sinewy horn lines against the fuzzy warmth of his Rhodes—nice contrasts to the backup singers, whose voices brought things back down to earth at moments when they threatened to head spaceward. And when Payton paired a ’70s soul-inspired groove with cascades of bright-toned trumpet lines, the singers returned to coo an insistent refrain: “Anything but Chardonnay.”
Other highlights included David Byrne, who’s long relied on a wide range of styles and heavy doses of quirk, even in his most rock-ish incarnations. He appeared on the Gentilly Stage rather than the larger Acura Stage, giving the audience a more intimate view of the intricacies at work on his latest album, American Utopia. Given that the album is a true studio product, featuring contributions from a slew of musicians and EDM producers, the show’s most compelling aspect was how well the music worked on a spare stage—with some players and dancers, including Byrne, going barefoot and instruments strapped to each gray suit-clad musician. After opening by singing to the human brain replica in his hand, Byrne performed both new songs and Talking Heads classics like “Burning Down the House” and “Slippery People.” The deconstructed drum-line vibe suited the New Orleans environment. And Byrne’s encore, a cover of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout,” struck a chord with its roll call of individuals whose lives ended in police violence. Considering that this was Jazz Fest’s first year to feature security lines and metal detectors, the somber tone was unfortunately appropriate.
Visiting Jazz Tent headliners included Ron Carter, who made time for an interview stage appearance—during which he discussed his work with A Tribe Called Quest and his plans to transition into teaching bass to third- and fourth-graders—before turning in a breezy but low-key, often piano-forward set.
The last day of the festival was bookended by blues guitars. First, Jack White played a mix of new music and staple hits shot through with references to Jerry Lee Lewis, early country, Detroit soul, and elder blues statesman John Lee Hooker. Later, Buddy Guy brought proceedings to a close by running through a series of searing riffs that nodded to Hooker and many other heroes whose influences had previously been audible in White’s set. As a final, unscripted moment of music education, it felt just right.