REPOSTED FROM DOWNBEAT.COM, MAY 2014:
On the first day of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival last Friday, Gregory Porter – ear-covering headgear intact on an 85-plus degree day– 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 evoked seemed to stay with Porter through his set, which spanned selections from his past three albums and featured a strong fill-in performance from local pianist Jesse McBride.
After the opener, Porter went on to engage the crowd with a groove-drenched “On My Way to Harlem.” The lilting and poetic “No Love Dying Here” followed, Porter’s warm baritone cushioning the ends of phrases through lyrics full of both ominous images and a refusal to accept their portent of the death of love. It’s not one Porter’s overtly gospel influenced songs, but the audience was soon backing up Porter, choir style, on the refrain — a perfect segue into “Liquid Spirit,” which brought the crowd to its feet and compelled them to join in.
“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 title track of his Blue Note debut. Praising her for teaching him to access “that 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 Gregory 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 old and newish music 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 Reevis. 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’s innards 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 drum roll and powerful bass solo announced the group’s closing number, “St. James Infirmary.” Eschewing the camp factor that often plays into the New Orleans standard, Ellis delivered a sultry, blues-soaked 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 headlining touring acts.
“Michael’s never played this song, but he can play anything,” quipped Keb’ Mo’ while introducing clarinetist Dr. Michael White to sit in on the traditional New Orleans jazz-inspired “Old Me Better.”
“He can play way harder stuff than this. 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 North Mississippi blues rock of the All-Stars who bear the region’s name and the driving Delta-meets-desert blues of Tuareg guitarist Bombino, Keb’ Mo’ – aka Kevin Moore – presented a welcome reminder of the blues’ more comforting side.
Joined by Tom Shinness on electric bass and cello, and Casey Wasner on drums, the group focused on material from Moore’s new album, “BLUESAmericana,” which as the name suggests draws on a range of American roots traditions beyond blues – including lyrical irony.
The playfully rendered darkness in tunes like the groove-filled opener, “The Worst Is Yet to Come,” gave the set an edge, while Moore’s addictively warm vocal range and his band’s relaxed 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 Fais Do Do Stage show, Moore got a taste of local roots music 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 Chick Corea, Pharoah Sanders, Nicholas Payton, Jon Batiste, Trombone Shorty, Terence Blanchard and more.