Okay, folks, I’m going to try not to be as lengthy nor as breathless as my initial post from the Fairgrounds Racetrack here in New Orleans. By now you get the gist that the Jazz & Heritage Festival puts a gallon of music in a quart’s worth of time, and that every day spent here is suffused with iconic moments. Watching Beausoleil, the premiere Cajun band in the world, play in their natural stomping grounds is a quintessential experience that can’t be captured by a blog post.
But there is some other useful information that can be effectively passed on. For example, the Nicholas Payton Sexxxtet has a provocative name, a renowned jazz trumpeter for a frontman, and no recorded music to its credit. The ensemble’s set in the WWOZ Jazz Tent featured many of the slow-motion fireworks that characterize Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew period, which Payton previously explored on his 2003 disc, Sonic Trance. But the Sexxxtet feels more organic and like less of a dabble than that brief foray. The rhythm section is top notch, with bassist Bob Hurst and drummer Karriem Riggins (both headliners in their own right) and an elderly percussionist named Rolando Guerro. A very young-looking, long-faced cat named Lawrence Elliot Fields was a master of pixie dust on Fender Rhodes, and the female singer Johnaye Kendrick was deployed mostly as a colorist, with wordless vocals.
Along with late ’60s Miles, the group evoked such fusion stalwarts as Weather Report and the early Return to Forever with Airto and Flora Purim. Payton—impeccably attired in a suit and fedora on a day so hot Hurst’s white cotton shirt was entirely plastered to his upper torso from the sweat—is an ideal trumpeter for the sort of long, ascending blasts that roll over an audience like an unbreaking wave. But this is also a band that emphasizes grooves over melodies, and allows Payton to indulge in some vocals alongside Kendrick. There has been a renaissance of the Fender Rhodes lately, and Fields’ solos demonstrates that he belongs in the forefront of that movement. And Guerro was a revelation, timing the chimes and triangle for maximum effect and creating a riveting percussion solo that had him playing a gourd surrounded by a mesh of shells first by hitting it with his knees as he jogged in place, then swirling it so hard that the mesh pulled away and snapped back against the gourd via centrifugal force. I felt welcomed into 21st Century jazz fusion.
Next door in the Blues Tent, Walter “Wolfman” Washington was holding sway. An unsung hero at the crossroads of blues and southern soul, the singer-guitarist has two endearing traits that make him a must-see whenever your schedules and budgets allow, First, the Wolfman has the capacity to rasp a falsetto without shaving too much tonality from his voice, a truly electrifying sound that he thankfully doesn’t overdo (unlike, say, Al Green these past five or ten years). Second, he always stocks his eight-piece Roadmasters with four quality horn players, turning the band into a reasonable facsimile of the days when the Stax and Malaco labels reigned. Imagine Otis Redding or Sam and Dave, only with the Wolfman and his stinging guitar and energetic vocals topped by that inimitable falsetto, and you get the idea.
I was going to watch former Fugees thrush Lauryn Hill next, but the crowd was so large that those of us at the very back were hearing Jimmy Buffett bleed over from the stage behind us. If there is something Lauryn Hill fans don’t need to hear, it’s Jimmy Buffett.
So I went to see the Strokes on the Gentilly Stage. They were solid—less Velvet Underground or garage rock these days than the Cars or Spoon—but the younger, rock-oriented audience was bobbing happily. Frontman-vocalist Julian Casablancas has always provoked a like-dislike feeling in me (love-hate is too strong), and this gig was no exception. In upper-80 degree weather, he wore his black leather jacket (which irked me more than Payton’s suit, so there you go). He also kept on harping on the word “jazz” in the festival’s name, and, of everyone on the roster these seven days, lamented that he didn’t catch Willie Nelson’s show. But, more to the point, he was in fine voice, at various points invoking the doomed croon of the Smiths’ Morrissey (but alas, without the lyrics to fit the mood) and the patented growl of Billy Idol on “White Wedding.” Fried from so much good music—did I mention Beausoleil?—I left early to beat the traffic.