When Mariah Carey isn't hanging with her kids and hubby Nick Cannon or beefing…
- Posted on May 12th 2009 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
Simply having Malian griot Cheick Hamala Diabate and his crew in the Blues Tent at the just-finished New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival this year on the event's second Friday, was enough to make the connect-the-dots point, as he at one point switched from his traditional ngoni to its Transatlantic descendant, the banjo (a five-string in this case, no less). Then there was the the second-lining, umbrella-toting local woman coming on stage for a joyous dance-off with one of the troupe's singers. But there was more to come.
First a jaunt to the Congo Square stage for a little of a superjam featuring the city's two leading renewers and refreshers of the brass band traditions, the Dirty Dozen and Rebirth. But got waylaid on route by members of the Ori Culture Danse Club of Benin, who have set up a little ad hoc African marketplace next to the Jazz & Heritage Stage, resulting in some comical, coerced trying on of pants over shorts and linguistically tortured Franglish price negotiations (note to self: plan trip to Benin to get the $5 change still owed).
So hustle back to the Blues Tent to catch the start of Appalachian flat-picking icon Doc Watson, and just upon approach to the rear entrance a little warm-up guitar run emerges -- sounding for all intents identical to the things Diabate had been playing, as if one of his licks had hung in the air waiting to be plucked. Centuries and a hard-passage ocean crossing apart brought together as simply as that.
By intent or otherwise, that was something of a subtext threading through the 2009 JazzFest. Yes, there were the big crowds for Bon Jovi and Neil Young and Wilco and, hooray, Pete Seeger -- artists for whom the "heritage" part of the thing has to be stretched a little to make a full fit, though really it was great to have all of them there (even Bon Jovi, who brought in some needed attendance boost in the still rebuilding city). But the heart of this annual event is the culture blendings and/or clashes, some of which happen just by serendipity on its 10 stages of ostensibly distinct but in reality overlapping focuses. At best it's a manifestation of the confluence of various African (via Haiti, Cuba and other regional points in the slave trade) and European (Spanish, French, Irish, Italian, just for a start) strains that are behind this singular city and its music, as detailed remarkably in cultural historian Ned Sublette's 2008 book 'The World That Made New Orleans.'
On the first Sunday, while making the way from Congo Square (seeing Miami's tropical groovers Locos por Juana) to get to the Gospel Tent in time for Mavis Staples' electrifying set, got caught up in another of those moments. At the small Jazz & Heritage stage, the ensemble Ilê Aiyê of Brazil was shakin' the stage with drums, chants and dance. Just at that moment, up the path from the track comes the Furious Five, Untouchables and Big Steppers Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs with the Young Pinstripe Brass Band in one of the several daily parades that brings the New Orleans tradition to the Fest grounds. So there was Carnival on the left, Mardi Gras on the right. Would the rhythms sync up? Almost, but not quite -- hard to explain exactly why.
And then there in the middle strolls Tao Rodriguez Seeger, fresh off the triumphant Saturday performance with his grandpa Pete, doing a double-take as he looks from stage to parade. He takes in the world of beats, shrugs bemusedly and moves on.
Bridging the weekends were two (literally) related sets that provided a real chance to compare and contrast. Two of the famed Marsalis brothers -- trumpeter Wynton (the biggest family star) and percussionist Jason -- each were part of dynamic African-jazz crossover projects showcased during JazzFest.
Wynton's one was a little stiff; Jason's anything but. Maybe it's because the former, centered on formal, compositional jazz structures, the latter on looser African grooves. It's similar to something seminal folk-rocker Richard Thompson has said regarding rockers doing folk a lot more convincingly than folkies doing rock.
In any case, on the first Friday, Wynton led an assemblage of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the African flute-vocal-percussion group Odadaa! (fronted by Ghanaian drammer Yacub Addy, Marsalis' collaborator on this venture) on the Congo Square Stage in his 'Congo Square' suite. The piece was premiered at the 2006 reopening of the French Quarter-adjacent Louis Armstrong Park -- the home of the original Congo Square, where weekend drumming and dancing sessions by slaves, servants and free people of color ultimately birthed the sounds that became jazz. It's an evocative and ambitious composition, alternately showcasing the African roots and the American branches. At times it was exhilarating, but too often the African drumming seemed a little too precise and the jazz "scenes" too on-the-money -- rote ragtime, Gershwinesque impressionism, Ellingtonian harmonics, that sort of thing. But when the two sides swung together and broke a little from the constraints of musical literalism, that's when it was at its best, a colorful, impressionistic look at where this all came from and where it's been.
Ensemble Fatien, the group in which Jason Marsalis plays, seems more like where this all could be going, though. The younger Marsalis brother is just a player in it. The mastermind is Seguenon Kone, a transplant from Côte d'Ivoire who has been embraced by the New Orleans music community and has in turn inspired some of its key figures. The lineup's as fluid as the music, but in this version Kone, master of the marimba-like balafon and other percussion tools, was joined by several fellow Africans from various countries, bassist Matt Perrine (also a mind-blowing sousaphonist who is ubiquitous around town), veteran clarinetist Dr. Michael White (one of the city's leading traditional music historians, educators and players), young saxman Rex Gregory, zydeco accordion powerhouse Sunpie Barnes, singer Margie Perez, steel guitarist Marc Stone and, looking very relaxed, Marsalis on vibes.
Given that roster, one might reasonably expect some sort of Afrobeat with the jazz guys helping build the snaky rhythms. And at times that was the case, though not in a Fela Kuti or King Sunny Ade kind of way. More often it was a real blending of the various styles represented in the group, interlocking rhythms with melodies reaching back through New Orleans history a century or more -- Afro-NOLA-jazzbeat, or something. One particularly interesting piece was sort of juju Dixieland, with Stone's steel and White's clarinet at the fore. And to bring it all together, a version of the New Orleans standard 'St. James Infirmary' somehow wove Perez's somber blues vocal, White's mournful clarinet and Marsalis' tolling vibes into a mosaic of African percussion, like a parade starting in Abidjan and ending at St. Louis Cemetery No. 2 across town here.
So here's the thing: It seems these days if an event isn't blogged and tweeted, or clogged and bleated, it didn't happen. (If a tweet falls in the forest...) Living in the moment is great, especially at something like JazzFest. But Twittering every moment is not. It's not just the reducing of every experience to 140 characters, or even a series of 140-character notes. It's not just that examining every moment is distinctly not living in them. It's that it elevates everything to the same level of import. And, to paraphrase 'The Incredibles,' if every moment is special, none is.
At an event like this, even more so is that nothing gets a chance so simmer and stew with that approach. And with 10 stages and dozens of musical (and culinary) cultures all floating through the fairgrounds, it's impossible to really get a handle on what any single moment might mean while that moment is still happening.
This year, perhaps more than ever, it was the culture clashes and/or blendings that required some time and thought to really process, and in fact required being taken in the larger context of the whole event. These worldly moments deserved to be savored like a soft-shelled crab po'boy.
Mmmmmmmm ... deep-fried.