On April 25 at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Gregory Porter stood behind the Jazz Tent, alone. The first notes of “Painted On Canvas” wafted back from the stage as Porter calmly spun one arm in circles to the slow beat of the music, his mouth set in a half-smile, his eyes cocked up at the blue sky.
The meditative warm-up ended within moments, but the serenity he evoked seemed to stay with him throughout his set, which spanned selections from his three albums—2010’s Water and 2012’s Be Good(both Motéma) and his Blue Note debut, 2013’sLiquid Spirit. The performance also featured a strong fill-in from local pianist Jesse McBride.
Porter went on to engage the crowd with a groove-drenched “On My Way To Harlem.” The lilting and poetic “No Love Dying” followed, Porter’s warm baritone cushioning the ends of phrases through lyrics full of both ominous images and a refusal to accept the end of love. It’s not one of Porter’s overtly gospel-influenced songs, but the audience was soon backing him up, choir-style, on the refrain—a perfect segue into “Liquid Spirit,” which brought the crowd to its feet.
“My mother was from Shreveport and she taught me how to make hot-water cornbread and how to sing in church,” Porter said as an introduction to the song. Praising her for teaching him how to tap into spiritual energy, he added: “She taught me how to think about music.” It wasn’t long before the tent rang out with the sound of hundreds of handclaps and hollers, giving the nearby Gospel Tent a run for its money.
If Porter brought spiritual serenity to the Jazz Tent, the next day’s closer, Branford Marsalis, brought muscle. Alternating between tenor and soprano sax, he led his quartet through a fiery collection of tunes that featured pianist Joey Calderazzo and drummer Justin Faulkner at their most visceral.
A thunderous version of Thelonious Monk’s “Teo” followed a pair of originals by Calderazzo and bassist Eric Revis. Later, Marsalis opened his notoriously knotty “In the Crease” with hummingbird-like flutter breaths—a light touch belied the labyrinthine rhythms that lay ahead.
Things escalated quickly, with Calderazzo and Faulkner taking turns upping the power until Marsalis briefly cooled the tune off with a series of crescendoing lines. Soon, Calderazzo was on his feet behind the piano’s left side, siphoning new sounds out of his instrument as Faulkner forged his way through the odd meter with both brawn and grace. The performance earned the band its first standing ovation of the set.
Its final standing O came after Marsalis invited his brother Jason and father, Ellis, to join him onstage. A stately drumroll and powerful bass solo announced the group’s closing number, “St. James Infirmary.” Eschewing the campy factor that often plays into the New Orleans standard, Ellis delivered a sultry, blues-soaked piano solo that swung to its core. Branford, back on soprano, picked up the melody with dramatic doses of restraint and release, then wailed into an exuberant finish.
Earlier that day across the Fair Grounds, another venerated member of New Orleans’ jazz elite made a surprise appearance with one of the festival’s so-called “guest” touring acts.
“Michael’s never played this song, but he can play anything,” quipped singer-songwriter-guitarist Keb’ Mo’ while introducing clarinetist Dr. Michael White, who sat in on the traditional jazz-inspired “Old Me Better.”
“He can play way harder stuff than this,” he said. “We don’t play hard stuff, just fun stuff.”
The guitarist was half joking, but much of his set’s beauty came from its stripped-down nature. On a weekend that also featured the grinding blues-rock of the North Mississippi Allstars and the driving Delta-meets-desert blues of Tuareg guitarist Bombino, Keb’ Mo’ presented a welcome reminder of the more comforting side of the blues.
Joined by Tom Shinness on electric bass and cello, and Casey Wasner on drums, Keb’ Mo’ focused on material from his new album, BLUESAmericana (Kind Of Blue), which, as the name suggests, draws on a range of American roots traditions beyond blues—spiced by episodes of lyrical irony.
The playfully rendered dark side of tunes like the groove-filled opener, “The Worst Is Yet To Come,” gave the set an edge, while Keb’ Mo’s addictively warm vocal range and his band’s instrumental interplay kept the vibe upbeat.
Shinness lent a rootsiness to the performance, switching from bowed cello (“Government Cheese”) to electric bass (“Life Is Beautiful”) to slinging his cello like a guitar on the divorce-themed “The Itch.”
Many hours after his festival performance on Fais Do Do Stage, Keb’ Mo’ got a taste of the local roots-music scene when he sat in with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at the hall’s “Midnight Preserves” series.
Jazz Fest continues May 1–4 with performances from Trombone Shorty, pianist Chick Corea, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, pianist Jon Batiste, trumpeter Terence Blanchard and more.