As I packed my bags to head to the 47th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, I felt a pang of sadness.
Allen Toussaint would not be there.
I would not see Toussaint, who died unexpectedly at 77 on November 10, looking resplendent like he always did. Nor would I hear him cycling through songs he wrote or arranged or produced, that were hits for stars of several genres, from Lee Dorsey to the Rolling Stones, Al Hirt to Bonnie Raitt, and that traced a half-century of distinctive and unparalleled music making. In New Orleans, a city known for musical innovation, imponderable dualities, and inscrutable personal style, Toussaint epitomized it all: He was a mild-mannered, soft-spoken creator of classics who drove a cream-colored 1974 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, who could look elegantly complete in a suit jacket, silk tie, and a pair of white athletic socks and sandals, who could say a lot with just few notes or turn a pop song into a symphony.
Since I couldn’t stick around for jazzfest’s second weekend—which begins today and runs through Sunday—I also knew I’d miss the jazzfest tribute to Toussaint (Sunday, May 1, on the fest’s Gentilly Stage). The announced guests that will join Toussaint’s working band include Aaron Neville, Cyril Neville, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Jimmy Buffett and Jon Batiste, yet Toussaint’s reach was so broad and deep it’s hard to predict who else might show up.
It was some small comfort that right before I left New York, I received “American Tunes,” which will be released June 10 on Nonesuch, and which represents Toussaint’s final studio recordings—solo tracks at his home studio in New Orleans and small ensemble takes from Los Angeles. Here, Toussaint worked with producer Joe Henry, as he did on his 2009 release, “The Bright Mississippi.” Some Toussaint fans I know don’t love that recording, due to its slowed-down tempos and its lack of, well, a certain brand of funk. But I do. It stands alongside Toussaint’s singularly funky achievements across genres and generations as something else, showcasing an aspect of his legacy often overlooked: His prowess as a pianist, which deserves its place within both a particular New Orleans lineage and the wider jazz-piano roll call.
Toussaint was a regular performer at jazzfest. Yet it wasn’t until after the 2005 flood caused by the levee failures that followed Hurricane Katrina, after Toussaint was temporarily displaced to New York City, that Toussaint began to “reclaim my own music,” as he once told me, and to focus more on taking the spotlight as a performer. (I’ll never forget Toussaint’s Sunday shows at Joe’s Pub, the intimate East Village venue, which grew out of a one-off fundraiser, or his 2009 stand at Manhattan’s Village Vanguard.) “American Tunes” lacks the coherent focus of “The Bright Mississippi.” As with the former CD, the new one bears the imprint of Henry, who is an auteur producer; yet Toussaint makes it his own, as he did all that he touched, especially when, on the new CD, he digs into the repertoire of one of his forebears, Professor Longhair. As long as there is a New Orleans, as long as American music gets played, Toussaint will be with us. On that Delta flight to Louis Armstrong airport, it was nice to hear from him again and anew.
This year’s jazzfest took shape under a cloud of loss. Not long after Sunday’s Toussaint tribute the Gentilly stage will host another star-studded affair, in B.B. King’s honor. The profound impact of Prince’s death, the day before jazzfest’s Friday opening, could be and will still be felt in many ways, not least in an emotional set by singer Janelle Monáe on jazzfest’s Congo Square stage and most clearly of all through an evening-into-night second-line parade and party Monday night that started and ended at trumpeter James Andrews’ club, Ooh Poo Pah Doo. The lights on the Charbonnet funeral home hearse had been switched to purple, behind which followed two white horses, a top-hatted horseman, a purple-clad casket, and Andrews leading a procession of musicians. Earlier that day, as I walked up Canal Street, Sheila E’s “Glamorous Life,” which Prince wrote, boomed from loudspeakers outside the Saint Hotel on Canal Street, where the doormats say, “Play Naughty, Sleep Saintly,” which seemed like a reasonable epitaph.
Jazzfest opened on Friday with yet another tribute, to drummer Smokey Johnson, who died in October, and who played with Fats Domino for more than 30 years (he also co-wrote, with Wardell Quezergue, “It Ain’t My Fault,” a New Orleans classic that combined second-line parade rhythms with pop-music savvy). Johnson was an elemental force behind many New Orleans-born hits as well as to the influence of indigenous New Orleans rhythms on the wider musical world. Drummer Shannon Powell led this show. As much as anyone else alive, Powell embodies not just the breadth, subtlety and spiritual power of New Orleans rhythmic traditions, but also the joy with which such qualities can be brought to bear. Powell seemed joyous working his way through classics Johnson helped create with the likes of Fats Domino, Earl King, Johnny Adams, and Dave Bartholomew. There’s a particular pleasure in hearing Jessie Hill’s signature hit, “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” (covered just about every day, usually badly, in New Orleans) when played lovingly and correctly, as it was here. Afterward, backstage, Powell was more somber. “Smokey was like a father to me,” he said. “He taught me that good, funky New Orleans beat, which is a little different than traditional jazz playing—that style that everybody tried to steal.”
New Orleans is many things, not least a place where drummers are born and bred to build on a tradition that is at once palpable and mysterious, and inspired to make their own brand of difference in music. In creating his indelibly elastic grooves, pianist Ahmad Jamal had a thing for New Orleans drummers: Vernel Fournier, Idris Muhammad, and, in two separate stints, Herlin Riley. Riley also notably helped redefine the sound and direction of Wynton Marsalis’ small ensembles during the late 1980s and early 90s, and to establish Marsalis’ Lincoln Center orchestra during its formative years. There’s something very basic to Riley’s allure, beyond towering technique and broad musical literacy. It’s an ease that escapes most musicians—that escapes most of us in our daily lives—and a humility that never diminishes his considerable presence. Audiences far and wide have come to know Riley as unwavering anchor and often spiritual center of bands playing in many styles—modern post-bop to big-band swing, New Orleans traditional jazz to funk, Afro Cuban music to gospel. In all these settings, his drumming radiates authority yet also seems to put fellow musicians in their comfort zone. He seems a channel more than a star.
Until you get to New Orleans. My basic strategy whenever I’m in there has two parts: 1) Find out where Riley is playing; 2) be there. He is a commanding and creative leader, whose trap set and tambourine raise the bar for anyone else onstage. This year, Riley used jazzfest’s swirl as a platform for his CD, “New Direction” (Mack Avenue), his first as a leader in a decade, and a window into his current working quintet. The title “New Direction” doesn’t so indicate stylistic departure (it’s not) so much as a new focus for Riley, as bandleader and mentor. Much like Art Blakey did with his Messengers bands (which, in the 1980s, included some of Riley’s New Orleans contemporaries, such as Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison), Riley has surrounded himself here with a core band of much younger players: Pianist Emmet Cohen, bassist Russel Hall, trumpeter Bruce Harris and saxophonist Godwin Louis are all in their 20s and 30s.
I’d just finished writing a story about Riley for a jazz magazine, sparked mostly by this fine recording; in addition to Riley’s mastery as a player and his command as a leader, what comes through clearly is his ability to write sharp tunes with clear grooves and interesting horn lines. Yet when I heard Riley lead his quintet at jazzfest’s jazz tent, my story and, frankly, that CD, seemed outdated. I’d fully expected Riley’s new band to be tight, well-oiled, compliant to his will and to supporting his new focus as leader. But this project rises far above all that. Though this band works through fairly conventional song structures, it is a vehicle for creative rapport in deeply refined dialects of jazz, and it is growing in surprising ways with each performance. That feeling came across most clearly during a set at Snug Harbor jazz club, on Frenchmen Street, where Riley sometimes accents a beat by taking a drumstick to the pipe that runs floor to ceiling behind the bandstand. (He signed his name to that pipe in red marker in 2006, after the flood—“to name it as mine,” he said, “and to announce, ‘We’re all back, and we’re reclaiming this space,’” he told me.)
At Snug Harbor, in quartet format, despite the absence of Harris, who is a marvelous trumpeter, Riley seemed not as if pursuing a “new direction” but simply to have upped his ante. His young sidemen were all in. Pianist Cohen has written a few tunes that exploit Riley’s gifts in smart ways, and he pushes the envelope more so than stays in the pocket, which is the sort of thing Riley revels in. Here is a cohesive band with a group concept, with Riley as clear leader. Still, Godwin Louis, who plays alto and soprano saxophones, demands special notice. He is quite simply a revelation to my ears, channeling some of Sidney Bechet’s spirit on soprano one moment, evoking Sonny Rollins’ way with a calypso beat (and doing it on alto) the next, exuding a confidence well beyond his 30 years throughout and hinting here and there at an abiding interest in avant-garde textures and forms. What makes all of this matter is his tone, which is always resonant in both the musical and narrative senses.
Jazzfest is doesn’t always offer the best acoustics, but it does frame local talents in an elevating way. I’d rather hear trumpeter Leroy Jones at Preservation Hall, where his sweet tone floats without disturbing spillage from other stages. Still, it was great to hear him at the Economy Hall tent, playing tunes from his fine new CD “I’m Talkin’ Bout New Orleans.” If you’ve forgotten how much Afro-Caribbean feel is embedded in New Orleans music or how harmonized three-horn lines can sound in a modern context, this CD will remind you. And if you think that players like Jones can’t or won’t play negotiate bebop changes with style and invention, click to track 5, “Rosey’s Theme,” where he does just that, and then slides right into a dirge.
Then again, some local musicians take jazzfest’s moment to make statements away from the Fair Grounds, the racetrack that becomes a multistage venue once a year. Clarinetist Evan Christopher played in several more intimate and less amplified atmospheres. I caught one fine set at the Little Gem Saloon, where Christopher performed with pianist David Torkanowsky and bassist Roland Guerin, and played some tunes from his new CD, “Bayou Chant & Other Textures.” Jazzfest is also a chance to hear stars dipping into New Orleans for inspiration, as musicians have always done. For the past few years, I’ve made it a point to catch organist Dr. Lonnie Smith’s annual gigs. At Snug Harbor, he worked with members of alto saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr.’s band. Harrison is among the most complete musicians playing today on his instrument (his own Congo Square set, with his full band, testified to that); with Smith, as he was when he played in pianist Eddie Palmieri’s band, Harrison gets urged on to wondrous extremes. Daniel Lanois, whose work I know mostly as producer, played pedal steel and electric guitar in a glowing and inventive set at the Ace Hotel on Sunday night in collaboration with drummer Brian Blade, and joined on several songs by bassist/singer Daryl Johnson and singers Joseph Maize and Daryl Hatcher.
Late on Saturday, I waded into the crowd to hear Van Morrison play the Gentilly stage. I found myself literally stuck in a sea of bodies. There was no escape, no room to move. We were nearly all white. And most of us didn’t seem to care much about Morrison’s singing, didn’t seem really to know why we’d gathered there in the first place, aside from taking selfies, eating, drinking and complaining. I wondered whether producer Quint Davis should think about a larger venue. And I thought for a minute that jazzfest’s engulfing sprawl—last year’s event drew 460,000 over 7 days—was a mirror for the real-estate boom that threatens to crowd and transform New Orleans in alarming ways.
Jazzfest’s multistage format sometimes yields damning logjams of talent that make for impossible decisions. As on Saturday, when the following roughly coincided: Drummer Jack DeJohnette, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and bassist Matt Garrison, in trio, at the jazz tent; an Economy Hall tent tribute to Jelly Roll Morton, featuring pianist Henry Butler and clarinetists Michael White; and trombonist/singer Glen David Andrews in the gospel tent.
One had to move fast and make compromises. Andrews—one of the most charismatic and magnetic figures on the New Orleans scene—was joined by Jamison Ross for his original song “Surrender,” from Andrews’ compelling 2014 CD “Redemption.” (Andrews another side of his brilliance on Sunday, at the blues tent.) Over at the Economy Hall tent, Michael White displayed how scholarly erudition coexists easil with chidlike glee by way of musicianship. And during Morton’s “Millenburg Joys,” Henry Butler sat down next to another pianist. With his left hand, he picked out ringing chords and running lines that worked like commentary, and gave yet more evidence of why Butler is the clearest and most creative player alive to follow in Morton’s long wake.
At the jazz tent, the trio of DeJohnette, Coltrane and Garrison lived up to the name of its new CD, “In Movement” (out next week on ECM). Considering DeJohnette’s mastery (at 73, he’s both wise master and restless adventurer), Coltrane’s intensity and grace, and Garrison’s creativity, this was bound to be a potent mix. There is of course obvious subtext: DeJohnette once played with John Coltrane, sitting in for Elvin Jones; Ravi is Coltrane’s son; and Garrison is the son of Jimmy Garrison, who was bassist in John Coltrane’s quartet; DeJohnette has known both Ravi Coltrane and Matthew Garrison since their childhoods. Yet this group is really about distilling the waves of information that flow from all that DeJohnette does—on trap-set, electronics and, sometimes, at the piano—and about creative communication in the here-and-now. I’d heard the group a year ago in Brooklyn, where the music bristled with ideas and yet seemed tentative. Not so on the new CD or at the jazz tent. Here were finely sculpted moments and arcs of sound. Coltrane sounded radiant on tenor, soprano and especially on sopranino saxophone. Garrison played fleet electric-bass lines or, sometimes, radiant throbs. DeJohnette’s presence is hard to categorize; he make even the tinniest electronic-drum pad sound elegant, and can build up a torrent when playing soft beats with mallets. I’d like to follow this group on tour for a few weeks and hear what happens.
The mixture of acoustic and electric sounds and of textures and rhythms that usually fall on side or the other of the “jazz-jazz” and “fusion-jazz” divide (a wall that was always as silly as Trump’s Mexican-border proposal) was one sub-theme of jazzfest for me (and it’s one theme of jazz’s present moment). What I mean is that we may at last have reached a point where an electric bass doesn’t mean funk, where a digital sample can speak directly to a saxophone on equal footing, where hiphop beats and bebop phrases and African hand drums are of one piece. The best jazz musicians have long known this (think Henry Threadgill or Steve Coleman). Trumpeter Terence Blanchard exuded such freedom leading his E-Collective at the jazz tent on Sunday, prowling the stage like a boxer (which made me think of Miles Davis) and blowing freely across bar lines and genre lines in ways that were not derivative of Miles. Trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, who I caught on a Saturday night, has his own band sound but it reflects this same sonically unbound truth. He called his last CD “Stretch Music,” and he’s extended his ideas yet further.
The best and most majestic expression of such liberation came during a Sunday jazz tent set from pianist Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. In one version, the story of jazz is about friendships. The one between Hancock, now 76, and Shorter, 82, is one of jazz’s great bonds. In my many trips to jazzfest, I’ve experienced few moments when the normally unruly crowd in the jazz tent sits as one in quiet and attentive rapture; this was such a moment. And we were rewarded. Shorter’s soprano saxophone posed piercing questions in some moments and wove soft tonal fabric at others. Hancock spent half the set away from the piano, working the “gear” he constantly updates, using samples to create orchestral textures or to build deep-boned rhythms. These were pure flights, blending acoustic and electronic textures, leaning on shared histories and truths, building slowly from mere implications of melody to implied narratives that felt like satisfying short films. When it was done, maybe by way of reward, or as a nod to New Orleans, or perhaps to say, “Hey, this was in there all along,” the two played a sort-of medley of blues themes.
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