REPRINTED FROM DOWNBEAT MAGAZINE’S JULY 2015 ISSUE:
With a smile before a cramped crowd at the Gentilly stage at Jazz Fest in New Orleans on April 26, Tony Bennett introduced his “Cheek To Cheek” collaborator, Lady Gaga, as “the most popular singer in the world.” If the accolade was somewhat of an overstatement, it was at least in keeping with the over-the-top nature of the set that followed – and of the 2015 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in general.
Taking place over seven days from April 24 through May 1, the musical smorgasbord featured hundreds of performers and 460,000 attendees. The festival’s big stages have long trended toward more mainstream tastes, a fact evidenced this year by headlining performances from Elton John, The Who, No Doubt and Jimmy Buffett. But just as the most interesting things in New Orleans tend to happen off the beaten path, the smaller stages at Jazz Fest tended to host the most memorable moments. In a veritable sea of noteworthy performances, unorthodox pairings and surprise cultural mash-ups are the norm, which made Gaga and Bennett a fitting first weekend jazz highlight.
The duo ably brought their unapologetically campy romanticism to life with her kittenish, self-effacing quips, his Atlantic City-style one-liners and their solid, overall spin through Great American Songbook classics. What Gaga — who graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts as Stefani Germanotta — lacks in soulfulness, she more than makes up for in bright tonality and strong technical phrasing. Interspersing most numbers with coy banter and costume changes (so many costume changes), Lady G. showed off her versatile range on “Anything Goes,” “Cheek To Cheek” and “Bang Bang My Baby Shot Me Down.” She teased that “anything goes – even Tony and me” in a high-pitched, tongue-in-cheek squeal. Later, she sailed seamlessly from the new album’s lovestruck title track into a richly textured take on the Spanish-tinged “Bang Bang.”
By that point, she’d changed out of the blue beaded caftan (complete with baby blue eye sparkles and a matching blue in-ear monitor) in which she’d opened the show. A silver sequined jumpsuit and four or five more looks followed, as did renditions of
Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” “Firefly” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” On Bennett’s solo endeavors, his voice often sounded thin – particularly to those unfortunate enough to be standing in certain sections where the band and voice mics or speakers seemed to have gone out — but his charisma certainly hasn’t dimmed with age.
Weather may have played a factor in the disjointed sound across some stages that weekend. Driving rain and thunderstorms had abruptly cut short the first Friday’s last slot. But as Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy sang a mix of tunes from “Being There” and “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” along with newer, more countrified material, the band battled at least two blasts of electrical feedback — and not the good, Nels Cline-issued kind — beneath a sky that repeatedly pulsed bright with lightning.
Luckily, the unorthodox or simply unexpected pairings across the Fairgrounds over both weekends were ultimately more electrifying than the weather.
On Saturday, April 25, Malian blues artist Vieux Farka Toure’s dark torrents of propulsive guitar work anchored not only his own soaring voice but also that of Portuguese fado vocalist Ana Moura. (Both singers appeared on The Idan Rachiel Project’s “Quarter To Six” in 2013.) Alternating between raw, blues-soaked peels of lament and acrobatically clipped, end-of-a-line pops reminiscent of Bjork, she heightened the intensity of the entire set, even after she’d stepped off the stage.
That same afternoon, the 20-plus-year-old New Orleans Klezmer Allstars broke down new boundaries between traditional Jewish music and New Orleans funk with a selection of new material along with a handful of special guests. The local supergroup is usually comprised of composer and guitarist Jonathan Freilich, Galactic’s Ben Ellman, accordionist Glenn Hartman and violinist David Rebeck, plus either Kevin O’Day, Stanton Moore or the Neville Brothers’ “Mean” Willie Green on drums.
As part of their homage to the new tracks (recorded as the tongue-in-cheek “Jewish Meters”) the band upped the energy by using two simultaneous drummers, Moore and the preternaturally funky Green, on their classic “Dr. Lizard.” Topping off the update was Hartman, who traded his accordion for an organ on the so-called “Jewish Meters” tunes, which featured Art Neville-esque organ breakdowns and more open rhythms. In the rain before them, bewildered and ecstatic audience members threw hips in every direction, then joined hands for a boisterous circle dance.
The moment fit in with one something longtime Fest-goer Angelique Kidjo said the next day during her Congo Square set. Taking a break between Miriam Makeba covers, she told her audience that “the theme” of Jazz Fest “is togetherness.”
“No second thought,” Kidjo ordered, “just love, people.” With that, the Benin-born Grammy winner climbed down off the stage and into the crowd, handing out warm greetings between melodically rich waves of song. She later invited audience members onstage with her for a mellow dance-off.
Togetherness reigned again – as did a one-two punch of funk drummers – the following weekend when another all-star group took over the grassy infield of the Jazz and Heritage stage. Fronted by a changing lineup of top New Orleans’ brass players, the horn-heavy Midnight Disturbers outfit grew in size over the course of their set. At one point, four drummers and percussionists including Moore, O’Day and Mike Dillon bounced gleefully between kit and percussion rig behind a lineup that included Perrine, Ellman, Corey Henry, Big Sam Williams, Shamarr Allen and Trombone Shorty, plus a pair of strong sax players (Ellman’s relatives) and rising star, high school-aged trombonist Revon Andrews. Together, they kept the grooves loose and dirty between solos. They finished with Allen’s traditional enticement to “Buck It Like a Horse,” in reference to a dance move that goes with the song of the same name.
Sets from a sultry Cassandra Wilson, a stripped down and haunting Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburne and the muscle-bound emotion of Sturgill Simpson also provided highlights over the seven-day period. Wearing white flowers atop her head and sharing an original from her forthcoming new album, singer Cecile McLorin Salvant sparked multiple standing ovations in the Jazz Tent. At one point, Salvant interpreted a version of Nancy Wilson’s “Guess Who I Saw Today?” in which her quick-changing vocal dynamics and artfully dramatic phrasing funneled every implication of the protagonist’s spite, frustration and pain into just one lyric: “Were you caught in the rain?” she hissed.
Yet even those stellar performances rarely outshined the “only in New Orleans” moments, another of which arrived on the second Saturday, courtesy of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, its pair of guest swing dancers and the enormous, gut-rattling vocal performance delivered by PHJB newbie Ronell Johnson. By the end of the day-closing set, the tuba player had all but forsaken his instrument in favor of filling the Blues Tent with soulful power on tunes like “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It.”
The final day of the festival featured a mainstage Meters reunion that brought together original members Art Neville, Leo Nocentelli, George Porter, Jr. and Zigaboo Modeliste along with a small local horn section and support from Ivan and Cyril Neville. They breezed through the hits, giving Nocentelli a chance to stretch out on “Fire on the Bayou” and letting the crowd dig into Porter’s famous “Cissy Strut” bass line.
The mood’s not always light when the band’s original members get together, but things stayed loose as Porter offered Nocentelli $10 at one point to play the first few bars of an early favorite, which he obliged. The goofy Audubon Zoo homage, “They All Ask’d For You” was equally sunny and bright, while Cyril Neville’s vocal contributions blended gospel, funk and the occasional scatting into a fiery overall show.
Just one day prior, the field before the Acura stage was an oppressive mass of Jerry Lee Lewis and Elton John fans, many of them looking nervous, most unable to move. In contrast, the lighter crowd for Sunday’s Meters set danced, helped one another navigate mud piles and sang along together towards the end on “Just Kissed My Baby.”
A similarly united vibe permeated the Blues Tent near the end of the last day of Jazz Fest when Aaron Neville’s butterfly-winged vibrato tackled the evocative “Louisiana 1927.” As he launched into “Tell It Like It Is,” thousands of hands waved before the stage, Gospel Tent-style.
Jazz Fest returns to the Fairgrounds Race Track in New Orleans April 22 through May 1, 2016.