Kamasi Washington and Ani DiFranco, two of the finest auteurs in music, visited the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on its sixth day (May 3). Both artists have pushed the envelopes of folk and jazz, and they drew two enormous crowds, with DiFranco overwhelming the Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do-Do Stage and Washington proving that a hot new jazz act can fill a whole festival field full of people.
Washington opened for Gary Clark Jr., effectively, on the Gentilly Stage, where the Texan blues champion defied a few conventions of his own genre. Here are some highlights of the second Friday of Jazz Fest 2019.
1:30 p.m.: On the Alison Miner Music Heritage Stage, Washington mentioned he used to study ethnomusicology at UCLA to former WWOZ DJ Michael Gourrier: “I wanted to learn other global stuff I wasn’t necessarily aware of.” Washington has globe-trotted plenty on tour, but he always found himself drawn back to his native Los Angeles, even his old neighborhood. “I was a huge Gerald Wilson fan,” he said of the renowned jazz trumpeter and bandleader. “When he told me he was going to record this album, he told me to come by his house so I could learn the ballad I’d be playing on. So he gave me his address and I was like, ‘Man, are you sure about this?’ I went to his house and his house is two blocks away from where my mom’s house was. I told him, ‘I grew up right around that corner over there, up the hill.’ [Wilson] said, ‘Man, I used to hear you practicing! But I thought it was coming from down the hill. I used to try and come find you.’ I used to be playing his music and stuff, out my window.”
Washington came to the topic of his collaborations with fellow Angelino Kendrick Lamar, and had nothing but glowing words for the rapper and his past collaborators like George Duke, Chaka Khan and Lauryn Hill, among many others. “I had known Kendrick, his music for sure, since 2007,” Washington said. “When he came around, I thought he was the John Coltrane of rap. He’s a real genius.” Speaking of geniuses, Washington mentions he’ll be doing 13 dates with Herbie Hancock this summer, though he couldn’t recall which cities they’ll be playing. “I typically don’t know where I’m going tomorrow,” he laughed. “I know we’re going to, uh, some cities. My Instagram knows better than I do. Just go to all my shows and Herbie Hancock may or may not be there.” Washington and Hancock’s tour kicks off July 30 at the renowned Washington D.C.-area fine arts pavilion Wolf Trap.
“There’s a lot of damn words in there,” DiFranco said about her book. “That’s a scary thing, to put all those words out there. There’s a lot of hot air in there, blowing through the stories, and I wanted to find a balance, you know? When I start talking about my philosophy, I just wanted to not lose people.” But the book caused the revered feminist singer-songwriter to remember when she first started writing songs and how confident it made her feel. “Boy, from the minute I began to make music, my life got way better,” she recalled. “It’s such a powerful way to connect yourself to somebody else, somebody you don’t know, or don’t know you know. I was immediately less alone.”
“Me too” and “give me a hug” came up several times throughout her interview and demonstrated the solidarity she’s shared with her fans over the years. “One of the things I noticed near the end of writing this book that I had not thought about was how much of it is about self defense, survival, you know?” she said. “I didn’t realize that that dominated my experience as a young woman in the world. ‘Me too’ were words I heard so many times before they became their current meaning. A lot of survival. This book could have been a litany of fear, abuse and trauma, but that’s not really my life. I try to put just enough in there to show the life of a young woman and how this girl and so many want to be beyond that, want to be freer than that.”4:20 p.m.: DiFranco gave her dedicated fanbase a jolt in the hot afternoon sun with “As Is” from her landmark LP Little Plastic Castle, a long-holding staple in her setlists. Her line “Just give up and admit you’re an asshole, you would be in good company” got a solid laugh from the packed crowd, too.
“I haven’t played a gig in six months, does it show?” DiFranco continued. “It’s like riding a bike. There’s nowhere else I’d rather crawl out of a hole to than Jazz Fest.” She followed that with “Fire Door” in a fast-paced rush of words, followed by “Still My Heart.” “Life Boat” is certainly appropriate for DiFranco to play on a book tour for a memoir, too, as it’s evocative of her early days as a homeless starving artist, busking on the streets.“This is the New Orleans and Jazz and Heritage festival, right? Well my jazz, and heritage, is poetry,” DiFranco said by way of an intro for her class-conscious spoken word poem “Coming Up.” Later in her set was “If He Tries Anything,” a song DiFranco released in 1994, one with renewed power in the era of #MeToo. Same for “Joyful Girl,” which featured charismatic swamp-pop singer/songwriter CC Adcock on guitar. She polished off the set with her re-purposed union-march anthem “Which Side Are You On?” popularized by Pete Seeger.
DiFranco sat down with Billboard earlier to discuss her independent label Righteous Babe, which celebrates its 30th anniversary next year, and reflected on the Righteous Retreat, which caused a tempest among her social-justice minded fanbase online when it was announced it was to be held at a former slave plantation.
“One result of that was that I changed everybody I work with: my management team, my booking agent,” DiFranco said of the controversy’s impact. “I realized that these relationships had lost efficacy and so my new management team was the instigating force behind BabeFest, trying to amplify the voices and unite the spirits of other people in this sort of house I’ve spent 30 years building. Especially now, is this perilous political time, I’m trying to diversify the way I work. BabeFest is an exploration of how else I can connect people to each other.” And as to whether staying doggedly independent with Righteous Babe Records has been worth it, “Definitely,” she said. “I made all my own mistakes. At the end of the day, I don’t regret it. The music’s been completely uncommodified. There’s nothing like an artist-run label.”
5 p.m.: Washington wound down his packed set at Gentilly Stage, and don’t ever believe anyone who doesn’t tell you jazz can’t put butts in the seats at live dates or festivals anymore. Twenty minutes before his time, his ten-piece band crescendoed beautifully on Harmony of Difference’s motif melody, with enough growling bass and Moog synth to conjure comparisons to the Gap Band, Funkadelic, Sun Ra, Miles Davis or John Coltrane. The band slips as easily into funk as it does jazz. They end with a dubbed-out take on “Fists of Fury,” full of little passages of squeaky G-funk that vaguely recalled Dr. Dre-crafted beats and Ennio Morricone-penned film scores. “We will no longer ask for justice, instead we will take our retribution,” vocalist Patrice Quinn chanted in spoken word. It’s part of the song’s incredible dramatic peak, and Washington left the Gentilly Stage with a warm goodbye: “We love y’all, we can’t wait to come back! Peace!”
5:50 p.m.: Gary Clark Jr. hit the Gentilly Stage a tad late with some meandering sound, as if his band were tuning up the way an orchestra does. Clark began with “Bright Lights” and rocked it out with a commanding guitar tone and roaring solos for several minutes. By the time Clark got into “I Walk Alone” he was in his killer falsetto voice over a staccato stop-and-start guitar riff. The lyrics of “What About Us” sound like an update of sorts on Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” and the lines of “When I’m Gone” hit the ear as a Great Migration-set response song to the Dylan classic.
Clark goes full Curtis Mayfield on “Feed the Babies,” with a ’70s funk groove and a splash of organ sounds from keyboardist Jon Deas. Clark and the band switch it up with a reggae drums and dub intro. “That feel good Jazz fest? Just a little bit? Thanks for having us.” Clark’s not much for chatting between songs, and prefers to do most of his talking through his guitar. “Feelin’ Like A Million” is a rockin’ blues groove with a braggy hook that’s begging to be sampled or see a full-on hip-hop remix release. Clark followed that with “I Got My Eyes on You (Locked and Loaded)” and eventually “When My Train Pulls In,” one his band’s best grooves and a long-adored live staple for them. His stellar clap-along finale was the rip-roaring bass-heavy cover of the Beatles’ “Come Together.”