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Catching a Little of Everything: The 2013 New Orleans Jazz Fest

J.D. Swerzenski
Contributing Writer
j.d.swerzenski[at]trinity.edu

At seven days, ten stages and roughly 500,000 attendees, New Orleans’ Jazz and Heritage Festival is a monster, one that I’m still trying to process. It’s also bursting with personality, be it through the food, music or people, all of which was wonderfully on display throughout my three days wandering the grounds. So after catching the every sort of music from the likes of Second Line, Salsa, any other genre that's a second cousin twice removed, and eating my weight in gumbo and Po’ Boys, here’s the best of what I made from the festival.

A Tale of Two Festivals: Having never been to Newport or any of the more traditional jazz festivals, the whole covered tent and chairs thing seemed like a ridiculous luxury. Standing in crowds too tight to raise your arms above your head is just an occupational hazard of festival going, thought I. And sure there was plenty of that to be had at the fest’s big stages, with throngs of people squeezed together in the mud watching Billy Joel or the Black Keys or the other pop bands on the bill. But I quickly learned to ignore that other festival entirety for the tented comforts of the Jazz, Blues, Gospel & Traditional stages. This choice paid fine dividends.

Wayne Shorter: By far the marquee event of Jazz Fest (well, if you’re into jazz at least), I camped out at the Jazz Tent for a minute to make sure I was in prime position. This was the right call. After huddling together for a quick prayer, the Quartet—arguably the most formidable on the scene today—hit the scene and launched immediately into “Orbits” from their latest Without A Net. That was the last melody I recognized for the remainder of the set. The band continued to weave, climb, crash and careen around each other, taking no more than three pauses throughout the entire hour and twenty minute set. It was true collective improvisation, with no one sitting out more than a minute before jumping back into the fray. And truth be told, it was a bit exhausting at times. But it was undeniable the force this band can muster when they lock in, and luckily, Shorter, pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade pulled few punches.

Terence Blanchard: I’m a bit embarrassed to say I wasn’t too excited to catch Terence, but man did he set me straight quick. Looking resplendent in a bright pink oxford, Blanchard caught fire early on in the set and didn’t flicker. He also bought easily the best band of the Fest: Lionel Loueke at guitar, Kendrick Scott (of Oracle fame) on drums, Fabian Almazan at piano, Derrick Hodge at the piano, Ben Street at the bass and Brice David Winston at tenor. Standards, space funk, drum-trumpet battles, the set had it all.

The Definition of Jazz: Much ink hard drive space has been devoted to the ever evolving definition of "what really is jazz" and all that. And certainly the Jazz and Heritage Fest has sparked its fair share of controversy in the debate (you call something Jazz Fest and book Maroon 5 as a headliner, you’re gonna get some backlash). But having been on the grounds, I can’t help but feel like the organizers are onto something with the remarkable eclecticism of the line-up. Funk, R&B, blues, gospel, jazz, ragtime, hip-hop, hell, even these guys were there. As open music platforms allow for increasingly adventurous listening tastes, why shouldn’t festivals reflect this eclecticism?

Welcome Surprises:

John Boutté: He probably should have been on my radar before due to this, but dude certainly will be now. Just one of what I’m slowly suspecting are about a million insanely gifted singer/musicians who seem fit to never leave the New Orleans area, Mr. Boutté possesses one of those angelically ethereal voices that seem to just float effortlessly over everything. The highlight of the set (and possibly the festival) was his nearly 10-min performance of "Hallelujah", by no small stretch the most beautiful version I’ve ever heard. I was just one of 3,000 people staring in awed silence throughout all six verses, not so much as a cough in the whole place.

Irma Thomas: Like Mr. Boutté, Irma’s another NOLA native who’s got the sort of voice rarely heard outside the church, but man did she let it out in the set I caught, in which she paid tribute to fellow New Orleans belter Mahalia Jackson. Needless to say, I felt the spirit.

Open Container Laws: Coming from Texas, the state that still has the gall to bust Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg for smoking in their tour buses, I’m constantly baffled by things that are legal elsewhere. So as I neared the exit gates on day one of the fest and spotted a phalanx of security on the way out, I instinctively downed the rest of my drink. What a delightful surprise to find that the security were in fact more beer vendors hawking drinks for the trip home. I don’t know how anything gets done in this town, but dammit did it seem enlightened.

J.D. Swerzenski is the operations manager of KRTU San Antonio and a contributor to the San Antonio Current.