The first Friday of Jazz Fest opened under cover of dark grey clouds that promised to eventually burst, but the first storm at the Fair Grounds came just after noon in the Jazz Tent in the form of Kidd Jordan and his Improvisational Arts Quintet’s cathartic and brawny excursion into free jazz.
With his 80th birthday just around the corner, Jordan made a crack early in the set about whether he and his bandmates — William Parker on bass, Joel Futterman and Maynard Chatters on piano and Alvin Fielder on bass — would still be around after the show. From the first few bars of their hour-long improvisation, though, it sounded as if the band could outsmart — and certainly outplay — a little thing like mortality.
Against the backdrop of Futterman’s intense and often pounding forays into the piano’s deepest register, with Fielder alternating between complex kit rhythms and waves of bell-topped hand percussion, Jordan unleashed line after line of rich emotion. Whether he was latching onto melodic figures that synced with the rhythm section or skittering through angular solos that unearthed seemingly uncharted musical territory, he balanced out cerebral innovation with muscle and precision from start to finish. Parker, meanwhile, switched back and forth between fierce pizzicato and bow-work that almost sounded like a second horn had joined the lineup. The group brought the long and evocative piece to a climactic close, with Jordan moving seamlessly from sky-scraping high notes to richly textured lows.
Jordan, who noted that some members of the group were headed to Chicago this week to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, was smiling at the end, as the crowd got on its feet to cheer. “Y’all are the faithful, standing here today,” he said.
A few hours later at the Congo Square Stage, Nigerian artist Lagbaja demonstrated a completely different approach to sax-fronted, jazz-based music. His set began with a drummer tapping out a beat and dancing circles around the center of the stage before a hushed audience. The rhythm turned into call and response as the rest of the group joined him onstage. Clad in red, orange and white traditional garb, Lagbaja came out last, his face hidden behind a cloth mask. He played a few sunny, bright bars before bringing the intro to a close.
The mask, he said in English, is always the first thing people ask about. “The mask is a symbol that stands for the facelessness of the common man anywhere in the world.”
He explained that the next song, “A Simple Yes or No,” is aimed at the world’s politicians — and their apparent inability to answer the questions of the people they lead. The tune began with a keyboard refrain that set the stage for pop-ready Afrobeat. He and the female vocalist that accompanied him, along with a few of their drummers, launched into a line dance that belied the serious nature of the lyrics.
After giving the stage to the other vocalist for a soulful, gospel-drenched number, Lagbaja returned to helm another beat-centric tune. He paused at one point to give the crowd a little dance training — a move he called “a big backside to the back.”
“Do you have your big backsides ready,” he asked, getting a flurry of claps and cheers in return.
“If you have tiny backsides, don’t say ‘Yes!’”
Big and tiny backsides proceeded to mimic his booty-shaking for what turned out to be an upbeat and entertaining, if somewhat repetitive set.
A sprinkle had started to douse the Fair Grounds by then, but it didn’t seem to bother dancers at the Fais Do Do Stage, who were dancing and cheering wildly for La Santa Cecilia. Hailing from Los Angeles, the Latin jazz, rock, cumbia and salsa hybrid draws heavily on members’ collective Mexican-American heritage for their sound. But as is the case with many of the best acts that tend to land at Fais Do-Do, there were plenty of undercurrents of connection to Acadian folk music, particularly during the group’s accordion solos.
It made for a nice, if unintentional transition to the Gentilly Stage closer, Wilco, whose songs have often seemed to share a little DNA with the Beatles. If Wilco had plans to play any of the Fab Four tunes they’ve been known to play live on occasion, they were unfortunately cut short by the weather.
Prior to that, Wilco played a strong set, marked by a dizzying number of guitar changes and lots of smiling, good-natured energy on the part of lead singer and guitarist Jeff Tweedy. The brief set featured crowd-pleasing, country-tinged renditions of tracks from a mix of albums including Yankee Hotel Fox Trot(“Kamera,” “Heavy Metal Drummer”), Mermaid Avenue (“Secrets of the Sea”) and Being There (“Red-Eyed and Blue”). But by the time they tackled “Hummingbird” from A Ghost Is Born, the rain poured and lightning began.
Wearing a mischievous grin, Tweedy launched into a moving and heartfelt version of “I Got You (At the End of the Century)” also from 1996’s Being There, that ended with a three-part guitar climax. Pat Sansone wound up his arm, windmill style, and as he struck the final cord, one of the day’s largest and closest bolts of lightning appeared overhead.
The band barely got through another song before the festival was shut down early due to weather.
“On our guitar picks,” Tweedy had explained earlier in the set, “it says, ‘It could be worse.’” An apropos sentiment for a day in which thunder replaced breezy, nostalgic guitar riffs.