JazzFest 2011- Weekend One

A few days in New Orleans can really set the soul straight. I was in town for five days over the first weekend of this year’s Jazz and Heritage Festival and saw more good music in those five days than I have in the last year in Los Angeles. Granted, L.A. is a cultural wasteland, but the disparity between the two was startling and enough to make me consider missing my flight back.

FRIDAY, APRIL 29 — 

9:10AM- I arrived Friday morning and proceeded to wake myself up with a Sazerac. I dropped my things off at my very swank hotel and lost an hour or two roaming the Quarter, stopping for a beer or two here and there to try and shake off the red-eye fuzz, before deciding I should head to the festival.

2:30PM- The people who run JazzFest are kind enough to give free tickets to many of New Orleans’ less fortunate residents, especially those who live in the area surrounding the fairgrounds, and one of those gentlemen was eager to sell me his ticket at a deep discount. Community reinvestment, indeed. My plan was to go straight to the Jazz Tent, but I was distracted by meat pies, then Crawfish Monica, and finally a spearmint sno-ball. Once I did make it to the tent, I caught the last few minutes of Mashup, a trio of Terrence Higgins on drums, Ike Stubblefield on B3 and Grant Green, Jr on guitar. The group was solid, and Higgins is always fun to hear, but there wasn’t anything that really set them apart. Of course, with the horrible sound quality in the Jazz Tent, maybe there was much more happening that I just couldn’t hear, but we’ll address the sound issues later on.

4:00PM– Next up was Anat Cohen and her quartet. They opened with their great take on “Jitterbug Waltz.”  I love the way Cohen attacks the syncopation in this song, making it something entirely different from a waltz- more Brubeck than Waller. Jason Lindner on piano bridged the gap perfectly between Cohen’s often soaring clarinet and the locked-in groove of bassist Joe Martin and drummer Daniel Freedman. They were a highlight of the weekend and probably the best group I heard at the festival itself, although they were the only group that had decent sound, but we’ll address the sound issues later on.

5:35PM- Next up was the Golden Stryker Trio- Ron Carter, Mulgrew Miller and Russell Malone. This group is the reason I chose weekend one over weekend two. For me, the holy trinity of the double bass are Mingus, Haden and Carter. The chance to hear Ron with Miller and Malone was too much to pass up. They played great…I think. The sound quality was so bad I had a hard time distinguishing Carter’s bass from Malone’s guitar. Miller’s piano reverberated like we were in an empty concert hall, and the whole stage threatened feedback the entire show. Towards the end, Malone seemed so frustrated with the bad sound that he laid out for large portions of the set, including what was the highlight, a duet of “My Funny Valentine” featuring a long solo piano excursion by Miller before Carter joined him. I wish I could say it was a great performance, but I’m not really sure it was. I will say that seeing true legends having to deal with such issues reminded me that we’re all just musicians…but we’ll REALLY address the bad sound later on.

SATURDAY, MAY 30–

11:15AM- Saturday started off at the big Acura Stage where my friend Mike Jenner performed with Renard Poche. Renard’s style is old school funk-rock, equal parts Earth, Wind and Fire, Sly Stone and Jimi. The show was good, but probably better suited for 11pm than 11am. Regardless, they managed to get the late morning crowd moving, no small feat.

12:30PM- After Mike packed up and Bon Jovi’s people chased us from the backstage area, it was time for breakfast. Creole Stuffed Bread, Crawfish Pie and a banquet beer or two got me set for some more music. We caught a bit of Kidd Jordan’s set at the Jazz Tent.  Somehow, this group had decent sound (despite having two bass players on stage). Jordan is a New Orleans legend who doesn’t get his due alongside the other giants of avant-garde saxophone, but the crowd didn’t seem to care. I was impressed by how into the way-out playing they were.

1:30PM- After Jordan, we wandered around a bit, waiting for the Midnite Disturbers to take the Jazz & Heritage Stage (formerly the Brass Band Stage- why’d they have to change the name?). The Disturbers are something of a JazzFest super-group. Founded when drummers Kevin O’Day and Stanton Moore felt like starting a brass band, so they recruited Trombone Shorty, Skerik, Ben Ellman, Matt Perine, Shemar Moore, Big Sam, Brad Houser and Mark Mullins. I can’t really imagine a better line-up, and the group performs as you would expect. That many stellar horn players on stage together leads to some healthy competition when it comes time to blow, and this day belonged to Shorty. The members of this group are clearly having a lot of fun, relishing the chances they get to play together.

3:35PM- After the Disturbers we decided it was time to pass out in the grass for awhile, so we found comfy piece of grass at the Gentilly Stage for Amos Lee’s set. I was pleasantly surprised by this group. Much more soul and swagger than I expected from a pop star. His band could play and they weren’t afraid to flex a little Stax-influenced muscle. Plus, being only a few steps from a beer tent made for a fine late-afternoon relaxation.

4:45PM- We had no interest in hearing Jason Mraz so we bolted from Gentilly as soon as Lee finished up. We were a little hungry (read: we were not quite pass-out stuffed yet) so we headed over to what is always the best food at JazzFest- Prejean’s Duck and Andouille Gumbo. Seriously good.

5:35PM- We had a few minutes before we needed to split, so we headed to catch some of Ahmad Jamal’s group in the jazz tent. The band took the stage and about 30 seconds into the first tune the droning feedback from the sub-par sound system caused Jamal to jump up off his stool and start waving his arms at the sound man, who’s only recourse was to cut the sound off entirely. What an embarrassment! One of the largest and oldest jazz festivals in the world can’t get decent sound engineering in their jazz tent. After about 10 seconds of silence the problems were mostly worked out and Jamal’s group soldiered on. Jamal was in great form, steering his entire band from his piano. James Cammack is a highly underrated bass player and got a moment or two to shine in this set. All in all a good way to close out my festival for 2011.

Close out the festival at the fair grounds, that is. I’ll be back tomorrow with my run down of my off-site shows, including a couple of Louisiana Music Factory in-stores that were the best things I heard all weekend.

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