Jazz Fest 2018 enjoyed beautiful weather for its opening day on Friday, April 28. The Fair Grounds opened gates around 11 a.m., at which time throng of eager Festers clamored for choice seating at stages like Acura, Gentilly and Congo Square. For the undiscriminating music fan, there were plenty of choices to choose from; everything from the rollicking piano of Jon Cleary to the pristine contemporary soul of Leslie Odom, Jr. was on tap.
Cleary & The Absolute Monster Gentlemen indeed got things boisterous at the Gentilly stage, where they blessed the crowd with renditions of “When You Get Back,” “So Damn Good,” “Just Kissed My Baby” and more. Just next door but a world away were Donald Harrison, Jr. and His Quintent, who conducted some “saxual healing” for the crowd after an introduction from legendary New Orleans journalist Warren Bell.
Over at the Jazz Tent, a teeming crowd was audibly gasping in awe while watching Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah doing what only Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah can do. He and his magnificent band performed records from the magnum opus that was last year’s trilogy series, including The Emancipation Procrastination. Telling the crowd the trilogy represented the musicians “reevaluating our relationship with jazz,” he urged listeners to use music to discover “what questions we need to ask to affect change” before playing a cover of Herbie Hancock’s “Eye of the Hurricane” while sound issues were worked out.
Jazz Tent headliner Leslie Odom, Jr. opened his set by humorously acknowledging the random nature of his fame. The stage actor, Broadway star, recording artist and actor said “some of you are here to see the Nationwide guy sing some songs,” referring to his ad campaign for the insurance company. Unsurprisingly, the crowd became most enthralled while he performed songs like “Wait For It” from his work as Aaron Burr in the original cast of Hamilton.
Jazz Fest is often defined by events that are not listed in the cubes. Many times it’s the weather that takes control. The last three fests have had to contend with serious rainfall and lightning, enough to cancel some of the music. Then there are the times when spirits pass, sending their message through the music itself. Who can forget Jazz Fest 2007, when Alvin Batiste passed the night before his scheduled Jazz Tent performance and a tearful tribute was delivered by his musician relatives and students.
Then of course cam 2016, when Prince died just before Jazz Fest and everyone from the Deslondes to Janelle Monae paid musical tribute.
This year we had gorgeous weather leading up to Jazz Fest and the party was already in full swing Thursday morning as the Radiators were presented with this year’s USPS postal cachet and they played a mini set to a packed out house at the Jazz Fest headquarters on North Rampart Street. The mood changed shortly thereafter as word hit the street that saxophonist Charles Neville of the celebrated musical family had passed. Fats Domino’s death was still resonating with one full-out musical tribute scheduled at the fest and several unofficial ones in the offing, but you sensed that Charles’ spirit, which was so ingrained in Jazz Fest history, would somehow make its mark on this year’s renewal.
The Neville Brothers ruled the New Orleans music scene in the 1980s and 1990s, with festival-closing sets every year until the group gradually dissolved into numerous individual projects. Charles was seldom the center of attention in the Nevilles, but his magnificent saxophone solos and shrewd colorations were an essential part of the group’s sound. He also brought an overriding spiritual presence to the band. He was deeply involved in Eastern meditation as well as Native American spirituality. Whatever form it arrives in, Charles’ magnificent vibe will shimmer across this year’s gathering.
It didn’t take long for the first reference. At a crawfish boil just off of Bayou St. John Thursday night, Ed Volker’s Trio Mollusk played a version of the gospel traditional “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down,” and Volker dedicated it to Charles Neville.
Opening Friday was perfect weather, sunny with low humidity and a light breeze, and the crowd was in a low key but joyous mood. Michael Skinkus (a member of Trio Mollusk) and his band Moyuba opened up a Haitian-influenced invocation of the Orisha spirits at the Lagniappe stage to open the festival. The terrific band is built around rhythms from Skinkus’ elaborate bata drum setup with great accompaniment from Sam Price on bass, Gabriel Velasco on percussion and Brent Rose on sax and flute. The wonderful singers sang and chanted the Orishas down, included a new piece written for the god of the wind. Sula Janet Evans- Mshakamari, Andaiye Alimayu and Margie Perez had the breakfast crowd dancing in front of the stage.
My main destination for the day was Congo Square, which boasted to my mind the strongest combination of music. But the much anticipated Batiste Fathers & Sons was nearly derailed by the inexplicably bad sound. Russell Batiste did his best to rally the troops but when the sound is that bad things just can’t take off. Speaking of which multiple flyovers by jet planes were visually impressive but very distracting to the music. Meanwhile the Givers were more than holding their own on the Acura stage.
Time for a Cuban sandwich at Canseco’s before the great Donald Harrison at Congo Square. Sound problems continued but Harrison, resplendent in his while suit, used what he had and led his jazz quintet through 40 minutes of beautiful R&B influenced jazz and funk led by his ever impressive alto saxophone work. Harrison proved adept on vocals, getting the crowd to sing with him on “Ain’t No Party Like a New Orleans Party.” A version of “Cissy Strut” was followed by Harrison taking a “Jazz Fest selfie.” Then came the finale.
“We’re gonna take Mardi Gras in April,” Harrison exclaimed as six full suited Indians paraded onto the stage and the band kicked into “Iko Iko,” followed by “Hey Pocky Way.” Master percussionist Bill Summers really took over this section musically.
Below, check out photographs courtesy of Noe Cugny and Kim Welsh of the day’s performers (just click on the image to be taken to the full gallery), who also included Sting, Bobby Rush, Jockimo’s Groove, Samantha Fish and plenty more! See you out there today, for Day Two!