At 40 years old and still going strong, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is slipping into middle age with its musical mission evolving and its devotees skewing somewhat older and more musically literate than average concert crowds.
Jazz Fest, as the two-weekend event is better known, remains a sprawl of energetic and relentlessly eclectic sounds adored by attendees, a large percentage of whom return year after year. And it’s an affair that’s none the worse for wear: the festival continues to offer an irresistible smorgasbord of top-shelf talent from New Orleans and throughout Louisiana, with big-name national pop and rock acts added to the mix in a bid to bring more ticket buyers through the gates.
This year’s festival, with 5,000 or so musicians playing on a dozen stages, opened strong with several special performances. Veteran organist and hitmaker Booker T. Jones was joined by the Drive-By Truckers for material from “Potato Hole,” their celebrated new collaboration. The bluesy keyboard man and the Southern-fried roots rockers looked and sounded genuinely excited to be playing together, and the results were as tangy and as hard hitting as anything heard during first weekend at Jazz Fest.
Wynton Marsalis, a New Orleans native, allied his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Ghanaian percussionists Yacub Addy and Odadaa! for a rare performance of their “Congo Square,” appropriately enough held at the fest’s Congo Square stage. The long-form composition, at 2 1/2 hours, comprised Mardi Gras Indians rhythms, African percussion, bluesy swing and traditional New Orleans music.
Jazz Fest first-timers seemed to flock to the well-known headliners, a group that included the likes of James Taylor, Joe Cocker, the Dave Matthews Band, Wilco, Spoon, and Earth, Wind and Fire — acts that are generally easy to find at arenas everywhere.
Connoisseurs of the region’s music, though, tended to seek out the homegrown talent, a rangy mix of styles that included edgy, jammy funk inspired in part by the Meters, Galactic, with special guests Shamarr Allen on trumpet, and Corey Henry on rap vocals; Papa Grows Funk, led by keyboardist John “Papa” Gros; and trombonist Big Sam’s Funky Nation.
Long-running Crescent City quartet Astral Project, with saxophonist Tony Dagradi, seven-string guitarist Steve Masakowski, bassist James Singleton and drummer Johnny Vidacovich, offered muscular post-bop tinted with New Orleans rhythms and colored with funk and experimental touches. Inspired modern jazz was also represented by groups variously led by drummer Herlin Riley, trumpeter Marlon Jordan, and trumpeter Terence Blanchard, the last of whom closed his set with a gorgeous, chilling reading of a piece from his “A Tale of God’s Will” (a requiem for katrina).
The fest’s myriad choices — resulting in tough decisions for open-minded listeners — also included the rugged, swampy blues of Louisiana slide guitarist Sonny Landreth’s trio; the flickering strings and ambling West African grooves of Morikeba Kouyate, a Senegalese master of the 21-string kora, and his Crescent City-based Kora Konnection band; the brassy, rambunctious punch of the New Orleans Nightcrawlers; and the rousing gospel of Mavis Staples, who lifted spirits high with a triumphant “I’ll Take You There.”
Those not fully sated by the music get another chance this year — Jazz Fest’s second weekend runs April 30 through May 3. Headliners include Neil Young, Los Lobos, Tony Bennett, Kings of Leon, The Neville Brothers, Sugarland, Bonnie Raitt, and, oddly enough, Bon Jovi.