2019 New Orleans Jazz Fest Day 2 Highlights: Santana and Trombone Shorty Team Up For Potent Jam and More
The second day of the 2019 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival kicked off at the Fair Grounds Race Course Friday (April 26) with sets from a prodigal son from New Orleans (Maroon 5 keyboardist PJ Morton), a Haitian-French heavy blues band (fronted by singer Moonlight Benjamin), Oscar-nominated composer Terence Blanchard (featuring his stellar band the E-Collective) and headliners younger (Aloe Blacc) and wiser (Santana).
Here are some highlights from day two of Jazz Fest 2019.
1:10 p.m.: PJ Morton hit the sweet spot of “eight to 80” all-ages vibe of Jazz Fest with his fresh, vibrant funk -- and that included a few Stevie Wonder nods. First, Morton’s anti-preachy preaching on “Religion” worked a Wonder-like piano line and groove. Second, he collaborated with the Motown legend on "Only One," which he noted when he introduced the song later on in the set. Third, he covered Wonder’s classic hit “Higher Ground” with a faithful reproduction of its signature clavinet sound. (Morton also switched it up to Bob Marley with a riff on “Is This Love?” No Wonder, no cry, I guess.)
The Maroon 5 keyboardist's set certainly eschews the heart throbbery and rock-star glamour of his day job. He’s an earnest guy who extols his love for his hometown (and its ladies, on “New Orleans Girl”). His first studio album on his label Morton Records came out in 2017. “Gumbo was born here,” he explained from the stage. “I was living in California at the time, losing a vision of who I was. I said, I’m moving back home to to get back to the basics of who I was. Then I got five Grammy nominations in two years.” Might seem braggy, but Morton didn’t even mention his first Grammy win for Best Traditional R&B Performance, for a silky-smooth cover of the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love” off 2018’s Gumbo Unplugged.
2:30 p.m.: Morton sits down with Billboard to discuss how virtually all of New Orleans' musical heroes and current stars alike had to leave town and come back to gain legendary status.
“It’s our story! It’s Louis [Armstrong], it’s Harry [Connick Jr.], it’s the Marsalises, it’s me, you know?” Morton said. “I think the only people that stayed [and still made it big nationally] were maybe Allen [Toussaint] and Trombone Shorty. And maybe Allen left for a bit and came back and did his studio [the late Sea-Saint Studios]. Trombone Shorty stayed strong, he left on tour with [Lenny] Kravitz and saw the world. But besides that, everyone had to leave to get noticed.”
Morton says it’s “something we’re working on right now, making it so that people don’t have to leave,” meaning he’s on the steering committee of the brand New Orleans Music Economy (NOME) initiative from Greater New Orleans, Inc. The regional economic development alliance is trying to beef up the local presence of entertainment lawyers, studios, publishing houses and much more while luring these entrepreneurs to New Orleans. It’ll help artists secure not just performance rights, but points on publishing as well. “We’re focusing on intellectual property,” he says.
“They take that sauce, and then they leave, and we don’t benefit. What I didn’t have growing up here is people teaching me about songwriting and publish and all that stuff. We’re moving in the right direction. I think we’ll have a really different conversation about this in three years.”
3:15 p.m.: From the jump, French singer-songwriter Moonlight Benjamin and her band are rocking the packed Cultural Exchange Pavillion World Journey at Jazz Fest. For its 50th anniversary, the festival’s heritage and culture side has put together a greatest hits presentation of artisans, musicians and curators for this pavillion, which most years hosts one country’s or region’s cultural offerings at a time.
It’s appropriate, then, that Benjamin’s band -- itself a consolidation of so many global influences -- speaks to the crowd it attracts and its zeitgeist. Moonlight Benjamin’s songs are a misty mountain hop of bass-heavy, witchy stomping and shouting, like if U2 went fully hard rock on “Bullet the Blue Sky.” The more atmospheric songs recall U2 as well with a dash of The Cure and chorus-chimed guitar pedal effects; others invoke African blues with skittering, picked trebled-out guitar. Virtually the whole setlist comes from her 2018 record Siltane, a sharp left turn for Benjamin stylistically. The band polishes off its accomplished energetic set with the record’s best track, “Memwa’n.” Benjamin, mysterious and compelling like a francophone Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, was dressed in almost all black, from her fingerless gloves to the drape of her veil. It’s vaguely gothic, vaguely voodoo priestess. The aesthetic is intended to signify rebirth, not death or mourning, she says in a short interview with Billboard.
“You have to die to have a rebirth,” she says of her native Haiti in Creole. “We have to root out corruption and birth a new nation.”
4:45 p.m.: At the WWOZ Jazz Tent, Terence Blanchard and his band the E-Collective are halfway through their set in an almost full-on free jazz freakout on anti-war screed “Soldiers." It’s followed by “Choices,” a much more chill, slow-building piece. Blanchard ends with the lumbering “Cosmic Warrior,” with grooves so deep they could put a hole in the Jazz Tent stage.
Earlier, Blanchard sat down with Billboard to talk about his soon-to-premiere jazz opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones, adapted from the memoir of New York Times columnist Charles Blow. It’s a follow-up to 2013’s Champion, another biographical work of jazz opera, this one of welterweight prize fighting champion Emile Griffith.
“It took ten years off my life,” Blanchard laughed when asked about composing not one, but two jazz operas. “It’s an arduous task, bruh.” He added both operas altogether took only four years, really, but felt like ten. And it’s no wonder: From composing, advising on a libretto (or script), fitting the two together for a two-hour-plus performance, marking those scores, helping stage it, block it and much more, it’s an undertaking. But what will it take to get and keep audiences in the seats, namely in his native New Orleans, where Champion has been staged to some success?
“I think the stories have to be relevant and current,” Blanchard says. “A lot of people are not historians like most operagoers are. For them, sitting down and listen to an Italian opera about some story of Italian lovers or clowns from [composer Giacomo] Puccini’s thing, sometimes they just can’t relate to it.”
Blanchard’s most-relatable and most-heard works are his film scores. His score for Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman was nominated for an Academy Award for, his first, for best original score last year. “It was a beautiful experience, you know? All the people in my category, we created really great relationships and friendships. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.” Blanchard’s next contender for an Oscar may be the score for Harriet, a biopic of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, co-written and directed by longtime collaborator Kasi Lemmons.
5:00 p.m.: Carlos Santana began with a trio of his classic hits -- “Evil Ways,” “Black Magic Woman” and “Oye Como Va" -- at Acura Stage with extended vamping on all three.
This wasn't going to be a short set, forget the vamping. In playing his latest single “In Search Of Mona Lisa,” Santana begged the crowd to “Besito, besito,” he sang, blowing kisses to the crowd: “Kiss your boyfriend, kiss your girlfriend, kiss anyone.” The field-filling crowd paused and kissed en masse, especially those up front. The Jazz Fest jumbotrons locked on to some serious Kiss Cam action. Other than that, Santana was well behaved, with his drummer extraordinaire and better half Cindy Blackman Santana watching from her drum riser. Andy Vargas and Ray Green, the band’s co-lead vocalists, kept songs like “Maria, Maria” and “Smooth” leaning toward their studio or radio essences. Covers were in the mix as well, with Green singing Peggy Lee’s “Fever” and Blackman Santana trying her hand at John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
But perhaps some of the most compelling moments of Santana’s set were Carlos’ pearls of wisdom dropped throughout. “Maya Angelou said, ‘The only thing people are going to remember is how you made them feel.’ We want to make you feel good.” Another one: “We don’t recognize wretched sin, that’s bullshit,” Santana said. “I go with Bob Marley. He said, ‘Emancipate yourself from mental slavery.’” He cited the great funk philosopher and Hardest Working Man in Show Business James Brown’s koan, “Jump back and kiss yourself!” as well. It’s honestly a delight, but Santana spoke to the moment at hand as well.
“It is incredible to be here. This is the mother of all festivals,” Santana said. “We want you to remember you are significant and meaningful. You have the ingredients to create hope, courage and blessings in this troubled world.” He continued, “Validate yourself every day. Walk tall with humility, heal yourself and all people.” He dropped so many quotables it’s hard to catch them all, as it was hard to retain them while grooving to his Latin arrangement on yesterday’s Acura Stage headliner Earth Wind & Fire’s “September.”
At some point near the very end of the set, Santana was joined by Trombone Shorty to jam, shattering any expectation the band would end on time. Santana’s been to Jazz Fest at least a dozen times since 1989, according to festival organizers. Perhaps he’s earned the right -- or at least the seniority -- to call an audible and blow through his time. Oye cómo va, indeed.