New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival / April 27-29, 2006 / New Orleans (Fair Grounds Race Course)

Last year's edition of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was aptly dubbed a miracle, because divine intervention -- manifested via major sponsorship from Shell Oil Co. and the sheer determina

Last year's edition of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was aptly dubbed a miracle, because divine intervention -- manifested via major sponsorship from Shell Oil Co. and the sheer determination of organizers to keep the thing alive -- unexpectedly ensured the survival of the sprawling event, less than eight months after hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the region.

For the 38th annual Jazz Fest, still a patch of heaven on earth for devotees of jazz, blues, rock, gospel, funk, jam band music and regional Louisiana genres, a different type of miracle is in play. The festival, which resumes May 4 for its second three-day weekend, is back to normal, with perhaps a greater determination by locals and out-of-towners not to take Jazz Fest for granted.

"It feels like the festivals of old," producer/director Quint Davis said at a Saturday press conference, during which Shell announced that its sponsorship will continue through 2010.

"Move Your Body and Your Soul" is the theme of the 2007 festival, with about 400 acts scheduled to play on 11 stages over the course of six days at the Fair Grounds Race Track. Eighty percent of the performers are from Louisiana, according to officials.

The first weekend's big-name acts turned in performances that were admirable if not always exciting. Van Morrison's revue-style outfit, complete with fiddle and two female backup singers, offered rather sedate versions of "Moondance," "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Cry, Cry, Baby," among others, with the singer occasional pulling out his alto saxophone. Ferriday, La. native Jerry Lee Lewis, looking frail, nevertheless got his arms pumping and fingers punching for "Roll Over, Beethoven," "Drinking Wine Spodee-O-Dee," "Chantilly Lace," "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Great Balls of Fire."

Norah Jones, although perhaps a tad too quiet for the venue (she made mention of the sonic overkill of rapper Ludacris, a ludicrous choice for a roots-oriented festival) pleased with her familiar mix of laidback, quietly grooving jazzy Americana. Local favorite Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews sat in on "Sinkin' Soon," and Jones turned in pleasant readings of the Dixie Cups' "I'm Gonna Get You Yet" and Tom Waits' "Long Way Home." Bonnie Raitt capped the weekend with a set heavy on New Orleans R&B, with the help of several Crescent City guests.

Homegrown musicians were responsible for several of the most engaging sets, including those by the New Orleans Social Club, with voodoo-funk pianist Dr. John, R&B queen Irma Thomas and George Porter Jr. and Leo Nocentelli of the Meters; Dr. John also held forth with his own set and joined Marcia Ball and others for a salute to ailing Louisiana songwriter Bobby Charles. Long-running New Orleans modern jazzers Astral Project, raucous funksters the Rebirth Brass Band, Cajun rockers the Bluerunners, rambunctious Cajun/Creole outfit the Pine Leaf Boys and groups led by saxophonists Edward "Kidd" Jordan and Rob Wagner, and trumpeters Terence Blanchard and Irvin Mayfield, were among the other locally based acts who made strong impressions.

Jazz aficionados were also treated to superb work by musicians who hailed from points beyond New Orleans. James Carter, variously playing baritone, soprano and alto sax, employed humor and virtuoso instrumental skills in a marvelously intense set with B3 organist Gerard Gibbs and drummer Leonard King; and Dr. Lonnie Smith led an organ-guitar-drums trio == grooving but comparatively mellow -- on a performance that included a dazzling run through Eddie Harris's "Freedom Jazz Dance." Mose Allison's piano trio, with Astral Project's Johnny Vidacovich on drums, had the singer turning in such bluesy gems as "Your Mind Is on Vacation," "Fool's Paradise," "Everybody's Crying Mercy," Willie's Dixon's "Please Mr. Sun" and Duke Ellington's "Do Nothing 'Til You Hear From Me." Cuban-born trumpeter Arturo Sandoval played, trumpet, flugelhorn and timbales, and sang, alternating between Latin-rooted tunes and straight-ahead jazz during a high-energy set. Funk-jam trio Soulive, welcoming new singer Toussaint into the band, occasionally hinted at Living Color.

Alt-country was on the menu, too, with Calexico's exuberant, decidedly appealing mix of Tex-Mex and hard-driving twang rock, on such pieces as "Quatro," "Sonic Wind," "Not Even Stevie Nicks" and the Minutemen's "Jesus and Tequila"; Gillian Welch's stripped-down singing, playing and harmonizing; and Lucinda Williams' boozy, slow-churning music, including several anger-laced pieces from this year's "West" CD.

The New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars offered a different type of folk-roots music, attaching long, lean lines, played on fiddle, clarinet, accordion and saxophone, to Eastern European rhythms, and accelerated the tempos mercilessly.

Jazz Fest isn't merely an aural feast for roots music fans and a smorgasbord for connoisseurs of Louisiana cuisine, including every tangy variety of shrimp, oyster and crawfish concoction known to man. The festival has an estimated economic impact of $300 million, and is an integral part of a "cultural economy" that, together with tourism, produces 14% of all the jobs in Louisiana, according to Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu.

"This is our home. This is what we know. This is what we love," Landrieu said Friday morning, at a press breakfast held shortly before gates opened for the start of the fest. The Jazz Fest really is a manifestation of our day-to-day lives."

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