Near the end of Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga's set, Bennett showed why he owns the song "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." Perhaps the cloud cover helped remind him of the foggy city. And by San Francisco standards, it was a beautiful day — and a lively one at the Gentilly Stage for sets by the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and Bennett and Gaga and her many wardrobe changes.
Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra have had a busy few weeks with the recent official opening of the New Orleans Jazz Market. But by the end of the set at Gentilly, everyone was just having fun. Dee Dee Bridgewater joined the band for much of the set, singing standards such as "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans." At the end of the set, tuba player James Williams put his instrument down to sing "You've Got a Friend in Me," in a very gravelly imitation of Louis Armstrong. Then Bridgewater returned as the orchestra stuck up John Boutte's "Treme Song," Big Sam Williams came on stage to lend his trombone to the tune and it detoured into the Rebirth Brass Band's "Do Watcha Wanna," which as a big crowd pleaser.
By the time Bennett and Gaga started, the Gentilly Stage seemed to have drawn one of its largest crowds ever, with fans filling the sandy part of the race track all the way to the fences. The duo did not disappoint and have a very comfortable rapport that easily eclipses any questions one might have about the generation gap and their respective senses of style and drama. They performed most of the songs on their 2014 album Cheek to Cheek
, starting with Cole Porter's "Anything Goes," and including classics by Irving Berlin and Duke Ellington.
At 88, Bennett still commands the stage, and though he leaned against the grand piano at times, he carried a third of the show with solos, including "The Good Life," "When You're Smiling" and, in honor of the centennial of Frank Sinatra's birth, "I've Got the World on a String." He also noted Ellington's birthday (April 29) and sang "(In My) Solitude." Then Bennett gamely advised the audience to go buy Cheek to Cheek
, because "[Gaga] really needs the money."
What Gaga needed was Bennett to do his solos while she changed wardrobe. She changed outfits at least six times, and they got more flamboyant as the show progressed, leading to a shoulderless red dress with a red feather boa-like shawl, and a final mostly sheer sparkling silver outfit with a white wig and white boa. But costumes aside, Gaga also filled a third of the show with solo work and has the presence and comfort to handle a field full of spectators at Jazz Fest like it's an intimate cabaret. Her version of the 1940s show tune "Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered" seemed typical of her ability to take a reverent approach to a classic song when the lyrics seem to fit her modern persona perfectly.
But the show was hardly a stream of complementary solos. The two were charming together on the songs "Firefly," "I Won't Dance" and their finale, "The Lady is a Tramp," though Gaga sang "The chick is a tramp."
Earlier in the day on the Sheraton Fais Do-Do Stage, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn had their own chemistry on display, and a lot more banjos. Washburn joked about the couple having a baby, born in 2013. She said they thought they'd have a lot of time to write songs together as they took time off from performing. Instead they wrote one song that summer, and they didn't have time to write lyrics or come up with a title, so they called the instrumental tune "Banjo, Banjo." They played a range of folk classics, from Appalachian to Chinese folk tunes. Fleck has performed at many Jazz Fests, mostly with his Flecktones band, and in January he performed his piece Imposter Concerto
with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.
Fleck and Washburn's set focused mostly on folk tunes, and Washburn led the group in a couple singalongs. But their folk music has a political dimension. Fleck played a song he wrote on a journey to play in South Africa in 1995, after Nelson Mandela was elected president, and Washburn had to cover all the Flecktone's parts. Later she sang a heartbreaking coal minor's wife's lament, which ended with "Let's sink this capitalist system in the darkest pits of hell," and the crowd roared.
At the Jazz Tent, Donald Harrison Jr. led a showcase of recent NOCCA students and professionals. He shared his own experience, noting that he left NOCCA to go to New York and learn from Art Blakey and to study the jazz of Miles Davis and McCoy Tyner. He said mentors at NOCCA expose students to not just traditional New Orleans jazz but modern jazz, and joining him onstage for to perform with the young musicians was NOCCA alum Irvin Mayfield, guitarist Detroit Brooks and a sort of surprise guest for the set, San Francisco organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, who frequently performs with Harrison when in town for Jazz Fest.