TVD Live: Jazz Fest,
The First Weekend,
4/27–4/29

PHOTOS: EDDY GUTIERREZ | The weather could not have been better as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented its 49th edition at the New Orleans Fairgrounds in the heart of the Gentilly neighborhood. Clear skies, mild temperatures, and low humidity greeted festers all three days of the first weekend.

It’s a truism of Jazz Fest that the days get more crowded as the hours progress from the 11 AM opening. This year was no exception as fans streamed in to see Rod Stewart, Jimmy Buffet, David Byrne, and the other headliners.

Since Jazz Fest has something for fans of almost every musical genre, classical and heavy metal/punk being the main exceptions, there is so much music that no single person could even attempt to catch even a small bit of every act. Here are some of my highlights.

David Byrne (pictured above) brought one of the most unusual, interesting, and musical bands to the fest. He had no stage set to speak of—there was nothing on the stage save a bench and a chair that appeared and disappeared as if by slight of hand. All of his musicians wore their instruments and roved around the stage in choreographed routines making the show as much a theatrical performance as a musical one.

He tore through old hits from the Talking Heads as well as a number of songs off his great new album. The band, which featured six drummers, two singers, two guitarists, as well as bass and keys was spot-on throughout the performance.

At the other end of the spectrum but sharing similarities in size, was the jazz group Trumpet Mafia. Ostensibly led by founder Ashlin Parker (picture directly below), but musically dominated by Maurice Brown (pictured below), a Chicago trumpeter now based in New York who spent some formative years in New Orleans, the group had nineteen trumpeters on stage.

Add in three keyboardists, drums, bass, sousaphone and percussion and you have a solid wall of sound. When former Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters percussionist Bill Summers joined in, the already dense music got even more intense.

African music has played a part at the Jazz Fest since its earliest days. As if by design, the 24-stringed kora played a significant role this year especially in the hands of Sona Jobarteh (pictured below). She played twice including a set in the intimate Cultural Pavilion, which has become one of my favorite places to hear and see music at the Jazz Fest.

Jobarteh’s family is from one of the five main griot families in West Africa, but having been raised in Great Britain, she spoke to the crowd in the King’s English. She was also interviewed on the Allison Minor Music Heritage stage explaining to the audience the intricacies of her instrument and the depth of her lineage.

While David Byrne handled the rock ‘n’ roll from the national perspective, two local acts both demonstrated that though the city may be known for jazz, we certainly can rock as well. Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes brought the goods on Sunday morning.

Led by guitarist and cellist Marc Paradis (pictured below), aka Sketch, they had an additional saxophonist, Brad Walker, on stage who punched up their already punchy sound. In the middle of a vamp, Paradis reached out to all the Jazz Fest visitors by telling them that as long as they are in New Orleans, they are from New Orleans. It was an inclusive gesture as well as a ploy to get the crowd to sing the word “home” in the chorus of the song. And sing everyone did!

The Magnificent 7 was rained out last year, so the group got another chance this year and the “band of bandleaders” made good on their moniker. They were more than magnificent, mining the songbook of the Radiators as well as better-known artists including Elton John and Leon Russell.

There were many highlights in their set, but the final song, Russell’s “Delta Lady,” sealed the deal. Guitarists Dave and Tommy Malone (pictured below) faced off, trading smoking licks while percussionist Michael Skinkus, drummer Raymond Weber, and bassist Rob Mercurio drove the back beat. Trombonist Mark Mullins and keyboardist John Gros added their own flourishes. The crowd was ecstatic and certain people clearly had goosebumps.

While the large stages provide the Jazz Fest what it needs to remain financially vital (the funds earned for the non-profit that owns the festival support a wide range of projects, musicians, and activities), the smaller stages are where the culture manifests itself. Case in point—the Panorama Jazz Band’s set on the Jazz and Heritage stage. Clarinetist Ben Schenk leads the group, which uses trad jazz as a starting point to roam the music of the world.

In a city known for its musical families, add the Schenks to the long list. Ben brought up his daughter and son to add some piano to the mostly acoustic mix of instruments. His boy Rogan, all of twelve years old and a Jazz Fest veteran having made his debut last year, ably played on Fats Domino’s classic, “Blue Monday” as his ebullient father sang to honor the recently deceased great. It was as fitting a tribute as any, passing on the music as it will live forever.

Tomorrow—Thursday picks with the rest of the second weekend picks on subsequent days.

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