New Orleans — From the Treme Brass Band in full swing among the baggage carousels at Louis Armstrong Airport to small venues where performers sometimes outnumber spectators, the Big Easy is America’s easiest place to see music of every melodic shade. As a summer destination, it merits consideration: Satchmo SummerFest starts next week. But for me, NOLA sounds best during Jazz Fest.
Jazz Fest is the annual sonic smorgasbord that yanks in music afficionadi by their ears. Jazz Fest is a misnomer. While it highlights plenty of jazz, the “nomer” is that Jazz Fest showcases a wide musical spectrum, both at the New Orleans Fairgrounds’ official tents and stages from 11:00 A.M. until 7:00 P.M. (during April’s final weekend and May’s first) to the after- and before-hours spots that keep the bass clefts flying 24/7.
Mercifully, the one musical genre that perennially has been absent during Jazz Fest is opera. No big loss. And while a hint of rap has leeched in like toxic waste here and there, it has been limited to a hint during Fest. That is far too much, but better a hint than a hammering.
Some of the Fairgrounds’ highlights this past May included the unsinkable Carlos Santana from San Francisco keeping perhaps 100,000 people on their feet in the Southern sunshine. From the East Bay, Oakland’s Tower of Power celebrated their 40th year with a horn-rich, airtight set that featured such barnburners as “What is Hip?” and more mellow but beautiful fare like “You’re Still a Young Man.”
Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews continued his rise as one of New Orleans’ most promising young stars by blending rock, soul, jazz, and funk with on-stage aerobics. This trombone and trumpet virtuoso leads a band that sounds like experienced 40-somethings, although they look barely old enough to take the SAT. Andrews performs twice on an excellent Putumayo Music anthology called New Orleans Brass that is well worth buying.
While Stevie Wonder made a welcome and rare appearance on the mighty Acura Stage – his first at Jazz Fest — it would have helped to hear more of his cherished songs like “Living for the City” and “Higher Ground” and a lot less speechifying about Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama. Intermittent thunderstorms made this all hard to handle; hearing Wonder’s daughter break into a Nancy Wilson ballad was, for many, the cue to exit, stage right.
Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra was a more pleasant surprise. This eleven-piece ensemble performs fun, evocative, almost cinematic compositions. Mayfield explained that one piece was inspired by the day when, as a boy, he left the bathtub spigot running until it flooded the floor below. “You Forgot to Turn the Water Faucet Off” is a delightful work whose instrumentations recall cascading water, while high-pitched trombone shrieks suggest Mrs. Mayfield berating her errant son.