Over the seven days of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, nearly a half million people descend on the city’s Fair Grounds to take in more than 450 performances on 12 stages. Something of a misnomer, Jazz Fest has never been about just jazz, but more loosely includes everything that the freedom of jazz represents: The dozen stages offer everything from touring headliners, jazz legends, and Cajun/zydeco to rap, funk, Americana, and brass bands. No one can be in 12 places at once, so there are many choices to be made, and everyone’s Jazz Fest is different. With that in mind, here are a few highlights-of-the-highlights of weekend one of the 2017 Jazz Fest.
Nas recruited New Orleans’s Soul Rebels, one of the city’s top brass bands, to lend some live energy to his raps, and together they delivered a flashing, thumping set that let both get their jazz-loving street on. Along the way, Nas — the son of Mississippi bluesman Olu Dara — gave shoutouts to many of his influences, including Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” Miles Davis, Beck, De La Soul, and Michael Jackson.
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As Phish-heads took in Trey Anastasio’s jam on Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” next door on the Gentilly Stage, and Harry Connick Jr. swung his talk-show band (and a cameo by his 91-year-old father!) through his remarkable range over at Acura, Nas and the eight-piece Soul Rebels plus a DJ and singer playfully held court in between at Congo Square. The turntables kept the transitions smooth as they moved from JBs-style funk riffs to a “ghetto version” of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” down the line to “New York State of Mind.” With Soul Rebels’ revue-style horns behind him and wordplay near the top of his game, Nas offered early hit “I Can,” led a singalong on “If I Ruled the World,” delivered “Represent” with “respect for Jazz Fest,” prefaced Illmatic‘s “One Love” by telling that he wrote it as a teenager when his “friends were getting locked up,” and turned hardcore with “Got Yourself a Gun.”
Earlier, the Travelin’ McCourys — sons of high-and-lonesome singer Del McCoury and friends — steamed the Fais Do Do Stage with incredible pickin’ and singing. Papa Del was a member of Bill Monroe’s legendary Bluegrass Boys, so it’s fitting that the Travelin’ McCourys have developed into the best bluegrass band in the land.
At the Jazz Tent, Kermit Ruffins put on his jazz sophisti-cat hat with his Barbecue Swingers and previewed tracks from a new album with label mate Irvin Mayfield. The set kicked off a week of performances by artists who record for Basin Street Records, celebrating its 20th anniversary with a roster that also includes Rebirth Brass Band, Theresa Anderson, John Cleary, Jason Marsalis, and Henry Butler, among several others, all performing at Jazz Fest. With its focus on New Orleans musicians, Basin Street helped to pull many of its artists through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, even while struggling to keep afloat itself.
Also notable: Leon Bridges, Batiste Fathers & Sons, Astral Project, Pine Leaf Boys, Chubby Carrier
Saturday was heavy with standout sets from brass bands that spanned the form’s history from trad (Treme, Storyville Stompers) through rebirth (Dirty Dozen) through modern street (New Birth, New Breed). But the day’s main card featured a battle of late night house bands. Well, more like a double-header with Jon Batiste and Stay Human from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and the Roots from Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show teaming up with Usher. Whether he was out front scatting, singing at a grand piano, or playing his trademark melodica, Batiste’s 70-minute set showcased his considerably broad skillset. He may be a New York TV celebrity now, but he’ll always be a New Orleans boy, one with red beans and rice in his blood. “There is nothing natural about celebrity,” Batiste maintained in an interview earlier in the day.
The theme song he wrote for the Colbert show had a funky driving NOLA-goes-to-NYC feel. It was followed by a special, spare arrangement of Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World,” a lilting “Killing Me Softly” featuring Batiste’s melodica trading lines with a trumpet, and more melodica on Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” dedicated to mentor Quincy Jones. The latter eased into churchy, second-line-style lines that showed off the horn chops of the Stay Human players.
Batiste also threw in a few piano romps, complete with an inventive improv on the “Star Spangled Banner,” “The Sting,” and a classical minuet. Batiste made it clear that the genre hopping was all a product of his N’Awlins upbringing. “I gotta get it all out while I’m back home,” Batiste confessed.
The smiling charm of Usher and soulshack funk-hop champs the Roots joined up to cap the day at Congo Square. (Side note: Usher was as a coach on The Voice with Adam Levine, whose Maroon 5 performed at the Acura Stage at the same time.) Though the Roots are a quintessential neo-soul “backup” band, much of the set was a collaboration, with Usher and his dynamic voice sharing the microphone with Black Thought, as on BT’s rat-a-tat tongue twister “Can You Dig It” and additions to Usher’s “Yeah!” They split the lead on ’70s disco hit “I Got My Mind Made Up” and absolutely killed Kool & The Gang’s “Jungle Boogie.” Roots beatboxer Jeremy Ellis took on live versions of the theme from Rocky and tracks by Prince and James Brown.
But it was the lyrics to Usher’s songbook that the thousands of fans in the stifling crowd crush had on their lips. “Caught Up,” a reggae-fied “Love in This Club,” “Confessions Pt. 2,” “You Make Me Wanna,” and an “OMG” that exploded into Sly Stone’s “Dance to the Music” were among the standouts. The day ended with a softly building sing-along on an Usher ballad, “Climax,” asking, “Where are you now?”
Also notable: Alabama Shakes, Steve Riley, Marc Broussard, JOHNNYSWIM
While Lorde worked through an emotional set of angst-laden lyrics with a stripped-down stage show at one end of the Fair Grounds, one of her musical idols capped off the day at the other. As a dyed-in-the-wool rocker with four decades of songs, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers provided an all-ages, all-eras set that was the perfect, familiar way to cap off a day that had been disrupted by extreme weather that led to the cancelation of half of the day’s performances as well as Pitbull’s closing set at the Congo Square stage. (Meanwhile, Maceo Parker was funking it up in place of George Benson, who had canceled earlier.)
The Heartbreakers pushed through two-plus hours of hits including “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “You Got Lucky,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “and “Learning to Fly.” Petty, who looked like a pirate strumming a Rickenbacker, pulled up “Good Enough,” a slow blues from Mojo, in honor of playing Jazz Fest. The connection was tenuous, but it was a blistering blues nonetheless.
At the 7 o’clock mark, normally quitting time, Petty and the gang turned up the amplifiers for a run that included “Refugee” and “Running Down a Dream,” earning a rare Jazz Fest encore to end the festival’s first weekend with their ultimate singalong, “American Girl.”
Earlier, Elle King, sporting an “I’m With the Dumb Blonde” T-shirt and a banjo hanging from her shoulders, roamed from classic pop to demonic hillbilly rock. After getting a song written by a jilted lover, she told him, “You have it wrong. I write the mean songs about the people I sleep with.”
Also notable: The Mavericks, Midnite Disturbers
DANCE, DANCE, DANCE
This year’s international focus at Fest is Cuba, an integral part of New Orleans’s music lifeline and cultural history. Pedrito Martinez and his quartet gave clinics in how to get more from less as they banged out searing syncopations that sounded like they were created by a band twice the size. Formed 90 years ago, Septeto Nacional updated tradition son melodies with trumpet and inventive arrangements. And Telmary y Habana Sana brought the high-energy urban side of Cuban music.