The 40th edition of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival unfolded in a manner that would not have shocked audiences at the first 39. A dozen stages, tents and other-shaped venues opened on the grounds of a New Orleans racetrack for the last weekend of April and the first of May. Bands took turns at each of the stages. Most were from New Orleans. Many were not. The operative noun in the festival’s title is not “jazz” but “heritage,” and in New Orleans more than in most places the word can have many meanings. It is not a great place to make serious study of the state of jazz music. It is a glorious place to eat crawfish and bask in the sun. Still, there was indeed music, and here is what some of it sounded like.
The controversy this year was the presence of Bon Jovi, who is not from the South and whose heritage does not reach back any earlier than, say, Cyndi Lauper’s. I would have been happy to hear Bon Jovi, but in the end we skipped him for Kings of Leon at the other end of the stage. A very good rock band, perhaps three parts Pearl Jam to one part Philosopher Kings, if that even makes any sense. Not really my thing but they suited the mood in the park. I mostly ignored them and caught up on some reading.
The night before, at the same stage, Tony Bennett demonstrated that, at nearly 83 years of age, he is finally declining as a singer, but he is descending from such towering heights with such peerless grace that it is still a great pleasure to hear him sing. He almost seems to be regressing: one hears less of the blues-inflected subtlety in his delivery that he learned early from Billy Holiday, and more of the straight, naive bel canto belting he favoured when he was a kid fresh on the scene. His band is win-some, lose-some: Lee Musiker remains laboured and flinty on piano, but Harold Jones, who swung the Count Basie band into bad health on a succession of classic recordings from 1968 to 1972, was a welcome addition on drums.
I wanted to see Neil Young because he’s Neil Young, but wasn’t expecting much from his two-hour concert as music. Shows what I know. Something useful comes from doing this for decades. It can’t be faked, it’s deeper than mere instrumental or vocal facility, and whatever it is, Young has it. He was in a fine mood, often simply looking out into the crowd between tunes and chuckling distractedly. “I’m not used to being able to see you,” he burbled at one point. “It’s usually dark where I play.” He played all the old hits, and tunes from his new album, Insert Name of New Neil Young Album Here or whatever it’s called, and musically they didn’t suffer next to the hits because all his tunes sound like they were cut by chainsaw from the same gnarly and ancient oak.
I wanted to grab Jonathan Batiste from whatever he was at and make him sit through some Neil Young. Perhaps he would have learned something about heart and essence, although it is not out of the question that he will learn it himself before too much longer. He is certainly a precocious student. Batiste is from New Orleans, a 2004 graduate of the New Orleans Centre for Creative Arts performing-arts high school, and at 22, rail-thin and handsome, he can already swing a piano better than most jazz pianists of the last 20 years. There’s Marcus Roberts, Eric Reed, Dan Nimmer and not a lot of others who could keep up with him. He has made serious study of stride, swing and boogie-woogie piano. He’s getting more modern sounds, especially McCoy Tyner, under his belt. He makes it sound natural and funny, not laboured. When he sings his voice is thin but you can hear he likes these tunes and wants to get better, so it will come. He likes to string ideas together in ways that are laugh-out-loud surprising: Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (played with real skill) became an overture to Saint James Infirmary, which opened up into a vamp on Chopin’s Funeral March, over which the “Hi-De-Ho” vamp from Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” fit quite nicely.
Like a lot of young New Orleans jazz musicians, who inhabit the only city in America where their music is still expected to excite large young audiences, Batiste’s is the sound of a man making significant decisions, really every several bars, about how much of his music should be about the crowd, how much should be about Art, and how much should be about communicating with the rest of the band. He wants pop success and he’s not shy about asking for it. He stopped the band in mid-tune, leapt up from the piano bench and exhorted the crowd to clap harder. He switched to synthesizer and played a clavinet-style solo Stevie Wonder would not have disowned in 1972. He kept three saxophonists on hand but used them mostly as a Motown-style funk sax section. When he gave them solo space they were music-school proficient. “You’re gonna hear something you’ve never heard from a saxophone in this galaxy,” he said before a tenor solo from a mop-topped saxophonist named Matt Marantz. Not true: I’ve heard lots of scale patterns from Michael Brecker fans in this galaxy. Here were some more.
Every time Batiste’s band stopped and he was left playing solo, the level of musical quality increased. That’s a tribute to his piano skill but mostly it’s an indictment of the band, and especially of the guy who hired them. He doesn’t see his band as a set of collaborators in some creative enterprise. He sees them as props for a revue. It shows. He can became a great pianist (check this out), or a kind of enervated huckster. It is not too early to decide.
The biggest surprise was Esperanza Spalding, a Portland bassist and singer who, still only 23, is getting some pop attention for her fresh good looks and bright spirit. (Banana Republic uses her to sell clothes, no fools they). Her second CD, Esperanza, is bright and intriguing but not entirely persuasive. She has toured with the great saxophonist Joe Lovano, who does not hire props or clotheshorses, so I knew there had to be more to her than hype.
She plays bass (usually acoustic but also some bass guitar) while she sings. The crowd under the big jazz tent was on her side in an instant; she’s all positive attitude. Her music has some Latin and R&B tinges, but mostly it’s straight-ahead modern jazz, played by an unassuming quartet whose pianist, Leo Genovese, is smart and attentive. In her peer group, she’s almost the anti-Jonathan Batiste: wherever you thought you’d find a gimmick you get substance. Her singing isn’t just something she does to make her bass playing more marketable, it’s real jazz singing: Betty Carter phrasing in a Nancy Wilson soprano register. Sometimes her vocal lines tracked her bass lines. More often they were independent. She plays more notes on the bass than she really needs to, but that’s hardly an original sin. At least she executes the ornate lines smartly. I’m now looking forward to Lovano’s new album, due in two weeks, and to Spalding’s Ottawa Jazz Festival set, on June 30.
Too much jazz criticism values musicians who appeal to tiny audiences, or worse, marks musicians down if they appeal to crowds. But this music was popular before it was art, and on its good days it can — especially in New Orleans, it should — still be both. I listen to much less jazz than I used to because I am tired of duds. Esperanza Spalding, and much of what Jon Batiste played, made me want to hear more.
CODA: If you’re in New Orleans and you want a break from po-boys, eat here. I did, on a friend’s counsel, and while the service was a bit leisurely, it was in all other respects a wise choice indeed. Save room for the cheese course. It’s all good.