Downbeat July 2016 [*educated guess on the month they run this …]
For at least a decade, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell has been dogged by criticism of its pop-heavy programming. The trend began when the Jazz Tent began being pushed from a more central location to its current home on the edge of the Fair Grounds Race Track. It seemed to worsen after AEG Live came on board as a producing partner in 2004. That the festival’s website url spells out “no jazz fest” hasn’t helped matters.
This year, festival producer Quint Davis and his team made a concerted effort to change the “no jazz” bad rap. As he told Nola.com in the spring, Davis felt he owed jazz and blues fans more than the festival had been giving them. He implied he spent twice as much as usual on that programming for the 2016 festival, which ran April 22 through May 1. And it showed – particularly on April 24, when one afternoon in the Jazz Tent featured Herlin Riley, a Herbie Hancock/Wayne Shorter duo performance and Terence Blanchard with his E-collective.
The stack of stars drew a massive audience, filling the Jazz Tent to capacity and leaving a slew of fans relegated to listening from outside the tent for Riley’s set, a hard bop-fueled performance drawn material featured on his latest recording, New Direction. Once Riley closed with a bouncing rendition of Danny Barker’s “Tootie Ma,” the aisles filled with Hancock and Shorter fans hoping to score a seat for their performance.
Repeated announcements about capacity came from the stage, with dire warnings like “there will be no standing in the aisles or charging of the barricades,” providing a strange preface to a jazz duo.
After a long welcome via standing ovation, Hancock and Shorter began to play, launching the meditative set with a pair of extended, mellow soprano saxophone lines. Hancock echoed his longtime friend and collaborator’s introspective vibe as he dug in on the piano positioned alongside his keyboard setup. Even when he engineered a series of fast, dark motifs with his left hand, things remained contemplative as the two indulged in 75, virtually wordless minutes of musical exchange.
As Hancock pressed on, seemingly anchoring much of the music’s direction, Shorter bended his approach, shifting timbre and power to simultaneously play up and build out the musical narrative Hancock was creating next to him.
For most of the first, nearly 50-minute- long tune, Hancock alternated between intensely cerebral figures, cascading harmonies and a use of time and space that said as much through silence as his more virtuosic moments said through sound.
Shorter, meanwhile, mixed swirls of color with vaults into unexpected registers that seemed as if they could lift the top of the tent off and send it careening skyward.
Hancock soon moved to his Korg Kronos, and a series of extra terrestrial sounds, some dissonant, some not, wafted out over the crowd. Slowly at first and then building in intensity, he hammered out a sparse drum beat, alternating it with sheets of low, spaced out soundscape waves that seemed to billow off the stage like a floating tapestry. Shorter added restrained improvisations to the top of the new mix, which by then had more in common with the EDM-meets- jazz feel of Hancock albums like Future 2 Future, than with the pair’s 1997 duo recording, 1 + 1.
At one point, Hancock unleashed a hard-edged Bhangra beat of sorts on the room, sending the rhythm ricocheting between tent flaps in an immersive departure from the meditative give-and- take displayed at the beginning of the set. The dynamics enlivened the whole set — and saved it from the Acura Stage sound bleed, which leaked a distracting amount of Red Hot Chili Peppers bass and reverb into the tent prior to Hancock’s energy boost.
Before they closed, Hancock returned to piano and both artists sounded invigorated by what had just transpired between them. Shorter’s energy and power shone through more decisively as Hancock set up complex, high-speed harmonies beneath him.
Later, Hancock worked his way into a deep-toned groove and Shorter played off of it, mixing wild upper register torrents with playful nods to Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.
Another jazz programming highlight came in the form of an unofficial focus on jazz drummers. One day before Riley’s performance, the Jack DeJohnette helmed DeJohnette Coltrane Garrison trio played an ethereal set of music that ranged from spiritual (“Atmosphere”) to groove-minded (“Two Jimmys”) and featured DeJohnette on piano as well as his electronic drum pad-enhanced kit.
Among the headliners at the festival’s second weekend, which was unfortunately marred by rainouts and flooding, was Joe Lovano’s two-drummer- centric Us Five ensemble. Though Lovano’s music selections for the set hewed more toward a note- heavy approach that feels slightly out of place in New Orleans, the spirited exchanges between drummers Francisco Mela and Otis Brown III consistently pushed the music forward.