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Saturday, May 2, 2015

Friday at Jazz Fest

Posted By on Sat, May 2, 2015 at 10:01 AM

Irma Thomas performs in the Gospel Tent. - BRAD RHINES
  • Irma Thomas performs in the Gospel Tent.

There were plenty of familiar faces performing at Jazz Fest Friday, and the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars featured many on the same stage. The blues and funk collective featured Tab Benoit and Anders Osborne on guitar, George Porter Jr. on bass, Cyril Neville on percussion, Johnny Sansone on harmonica, Michael Doucet on fiddle and Johnny Vidacovich on drums. The group traded songs throughout its headlining set in the Blues Tent, from Neville’s Meters-inspired “Ain’t No Funk Like Louisiana Funk” to Doucet’s French-language cover of Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman.” Each song left plenty of room for Benoit and Osborne to stretch out on blistering solos. At the end of the set, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux joined the band for a rowdy performance of “Li’l Liza Jane” that had fans dancing and singing in aisles.

Early in the afternoon, Irma Thomas drew a big crowd for her annual show at the Gospel Tent. Since 2006, the performance has been billed as a tribute to Mahalia Jackson, but as of last year, it’s “The Gospel Soul of Irma Thomas.” Much of the set was dedicated to the kind of contemporary gospel often heard at the tent, but the show started off in true revival fashion with Thomas belting out “Down by the Riverside” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” She slowed things down with the classic “Somebody Bigger Than You and I” and then segued into a rousing rendition of “How Great Thou Art,” which brought the crowd to its feet. Thomas’s performance wasn’t focused strictly on Mahalia Jackson, but she did sing a rollicking, hand-clapping version of “Didn’t It Rain.”

At the NOCCA Stage, NOCCA alum Terence Blanchard sat in for a short set with a sextet of current NOCCA students, including his daughter Sidney Blanchard on piano. The group opened up with an extended take on Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” that allowed the young players to show their stuff. On the gently swinging jazz standard “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” Blanchard traded solos with his daughter. Her moments in the spotlight left the trumpet player in full “proud dad” mode, as he leaned against the piano, eyes closed and swaying, while the younger Blanchard took the lead. The band closed with a slow burning blues number called “See Me As I Am,” a song from Blanchard’s forthcoming album Breathless. Blanchard didn’t have a chance to introduce the band, but he was clearly delighted by their company. “I just want to say, I’m enjoying sharing the stage with these young musicians,” said Blanchard. “It’s great to see the light in their eyes — and the fear. I’ve been there.”

Donald Harrison Jr. performs at Jazz Fest. - BRAD RHINES
  • Donald Harrison Jr. performs at Jazz Fest.

Blanchard’s former classmate Big Chief Donald Harrison Jr. showed his range during his performance at the Congo Square Stage. His band, featuring percussionist Bill Summers, worked its way through a couple of Latin-tinged instrumental pieces before easing into the slow jam “Feel Like Making Love.” Harrison later switched gears and brought up members of the Congo Nation Mardi Gras Indian tribe for funky versions of “Iko Iko” and “Hey Pocky Way.” Midway through the set, Harrison took a moment to remind the crowd that they were at a jazz festival, and he extolled the virtues of New Orleans’ indigenous music. “You’ve got to have jazz in your life!” Harrison told the audience. “I’m not talking about smooth jazz, I’m not talking about jazz lite, I’m talking about real jazz.” Harrison and his band tore through John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” As the song came to a close, Harrison chanted, “Keep jazz alive! Keep jazz alive!”

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