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Count Basin™ recaps Jazz Fest 2018 

David Byrne's brain, jazz master Dianne Reeves, Tank and the Bangas' space jams and other highlights from the Fest

click to enlarge Dianne Reeves was recently named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Photo by Scott Saltzman

Dianne Reeves was recently named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.

The 2018 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival had a mix of rock stars, jazz icons, international visitors, local musicians who've hit the national stage, traditional Louisiana bands, tributes to New Orleans legends and more. Here's a look back at the memorable moments from seven days of the festival.

Gray matter
Holding a plastic brain, David Byrne sat barefoot on the Gentilly Stage at a small table, addressing the universe with "Here" in a Hamlet-esque introduction to a set that lent curious theater to a playful and often funny standout performance. His band emerged — all wearing nearly identical gray suits — playing wireless instruments that allowed them to float around stage and make robotlike movements for Talking Heads classics "This Must Be the Place," "Once in a Lifetime," "Burning Down the House" and others, alongside newer tracks like "Every Day Is a Miracle" from his 2018 album American Utopia. His closing encore was an amended, percussive version of Janelle Monae's "Hell You Talmbout," a tribute to victims of police violence and a powerful dose of grounding realism from the man with his "feet on the ground, head in the sky."

Rapper Common embraced the raw power of a stripped-down set, a tribute to the pillars of hip-hop and a prayer to black America. DJ Metrik cut up on turntables while Common pounced across the stage in time with his rhymes, often improvising and keeping the sea of bobbing heads hanging on every word. In "Time Travelin' (A Tribute to Fela)" from his breakthrough fourth LP Like Water for Chocolate, he transforms the Afrobeat artist's music into an autobiographical essay linking past, present and future — his soul-sampled beats propelling philosophical rhymes examining personal struggle and politics, race and romance.

  Common invited the crowd to raise fists in solidarity with the deaths of unarmed black men and women, leading a sermon against the "epidemic that's been going on since the start of America" and the impacts of mass incarceration and racism. In "Black America Again," his gut-punch reclamation of black history against white supremacy, fame and violence, he raps, "Now we slave to the blocks, on 'em we spray shots / Leaving our own to lay in a box / Black mothers' stomachs stay in a knot / We kill each other, it's part of the plot."

Full Tank
Tarriona "Tank" Ball boomed through a rumbling, keytar-infused intro to announce, "I am Lena Horne, Nina Simone, Betty Shabazz," her hot pink cape waving in the breeze behind her. It's been quite a journey since Tank and the Bangas won an NPR Tiny Desk contest last year. Back in town for Jazz Fest, the band was bolstered by the horn section from Naughty Professor and a pair of dancers in shimmery leotards. Ball shapeshifted from poet to comic to gospel singer to soul queen within the range of a few bars, and the set had dark, psychedelic space jams, blissful personality-flipping flow, twists, dips and turns through a groove-spiked catalogue of references to early '90s rap and rock. Ball and her singers wove epic stories about the characters coming and going on St. Claude Avenue, and the band's brassy, funk-meets-rock vibe matched Ball's quick-witted swagger. There was an extended section of music and rhyme that had all the roller coaster ebullience of The Pharcyde, followed by a gentle ballad in which Ball reigned in her vocal power and channeled Butterfly from Digable Planets. Taken together, the songs were drawn into connected narratives that made them feel like one long sermon.

Smokey at The wheel
In case anyone had forgotten, Smokey Robinson reminded the audience at the Congo Square Stage that he has written some hits. He opened with "Being With You," "I Second That Emotion," "You Really Got a Hold on Me" and "Quiet Storm." At 78 years old, Robinson still sings in a velvety high voice and slips in some sultry looks and gestures. He told the crowd that in 2010 he finished his third year of celebrating the 50th anniversary of Motown, which he helped found. The label put out his music and many hits he wrote for other performers, whom he listed: The Temptations, Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, Diana Ross, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye and others. Robinson then sang all or parts of "Get Ready," "I Got Sunshine" and other songs. And if that wasn't enough of a contribution, he shared that in the label's early days, band members toured by car and took turns driving. He was taking his turn at the wheel one night when he came up with a song for The Temptations, "The Way You Do the Things You Do."

Back in the saddle
Aerosmith was Jazz Fest's 2018 requisite classic rock band headlining the Acura Stage on a Saturday. Leathery, greasy, loud as hell, it reveled in its 40-year span of ludicrously massive hits, from Armageddon cheese "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," to the honk of "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)," to spirit of '89 MTV staple "Cryin'" to Toys in the Attic and Fleetwood Mac jams. Steven Tyler, 70, draped in a sheer black top and white jeans, slithered around the stage and alongside guitarist Joe Perry, whose screeching guitar could be heard throughout the surrounding area. Their scarf-draped rock 'n' roll filth oozed from every song, kicking off with "Toys in the Attic" and sprinting through a 90-minute set with crowd favorites "Janie's Got a Gun" and "Sweet Emotion" leading to a "Dream On" finale, with Tyler atop a white piano.

Master class
Dianne Reeves recently was named an NEA Jazz Master, and in the WWOZ Jazz Tent she put her beautiful deep voice, elegant phrasing and commanding stage presence on impressive display. She opened with Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams," nimbly scatted through some segments, sang slow contemplative love songs with minimal accompaniment, offered emotional laments such as "Cold," and then delivered a joyous rendition of "Nine," which extolls the simple wonders of childhood. She even sang extended biographical introductions to her band members, and it's hard to imagine her singing anything that wouldn't wow an audience.

Charlie's angels
Charlie Wilson and four dancers in brightly colored short dresses chugged onto Jazz Fest's Congo Square Stage to the tune of the Gap Band's "Party Train" and set the tone for an energetic show — full of costume changes and syncopated dance moves. But Wilson is going strong in his solo career, and he highlighted hits from his 2017 album In It to Win It. Flanked by dancers wearing long white gowns and feathered wings, he launched into an extended version of his gospel hit "I'm Blessed," and later sang "Chills," which recently spent three weeks atop Billboard's Adult R&B chart.

Get back now
Every Jazz Fest, New Orleans bounce star Big Freedia assembles a stage show bigger than the year before, embracing the hometown platform to put on a performance to match the energy of her music. Freedia entered the Congo Square Stage wearing a gold top and shimmering tuxedo jacket with tails and followed by a 10-person choir, each member wearing a letter in "Big Freedia," and Freedia's seven dancers, balancing the intense choreography of an hourlong Freedia show.

  Freedia's explosive set kicked off with a sprinting ballet dancer twirling with a parasol and moved through hits "Explode," "Y'all Get Back Now," and "Rock Around the Clock," which morphed into Michael Jackson's "Rock With You." Freedia invited a dozen people from the crowd onstage for "Azz Everywhere," including comedian and Claws and Reno 911 star Niecy Nash, who twerked like a pro in a sundress. The dancers took over for an interlude of Beyonce's "Formation" (which they nailed to a T) and Drake's "Nice for What," two massive pop hits on which Freedia's voice appears. Eventually the show U-turned into a euphoric gospel maestroed by Freedia, a former choir director. Within minutes, Freedia seamlessly transitioned from directing ass claps to directing a gospel choir's gorgeous rendering of "hallelujah."

click to enlarge Rod Stewart performed at Jazz Fest. - PHOTO BY SCOTT SALTZMAN
  • Photo by Scott Saltzman
  • Rod Stewart performed at Jazz Fest.

Hot Rod
Rod Stewart bracketed his set with his lusty tunes "Infatuation" and "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy," and there was a Vegas-y largesse to his stage show, which included six dancers and a giant golden harp. And while the dancers switched to schoolgirl-like plaid skirt outfits for "Forever Young," they also spent much of the set playing instruments, including the harp, violins, mandolin and percussion. Stewart's stellar band also includes saxophonist Jimmy Roberts, who delivered a brilliant solo interlude on Tom Waits' "Downtown Train," which was a hit for Stewart on his Vagabond Heart album. But Stewart showed his voice doesn't need to be dressed up with gimmicks, which he proved singing "Some Guys Have All the Luck," "Tonight's the Night," a quiet version of "The First Cut is the Deepest," "You're in My Heart," "Have I Told You Lately" and "Maggie May."

Sweet surrender
One of the festival's biggest surprises was the ecstatic set presented by The War and Treaty at the Lagniappe Stage. The band features former soldier and the armed forces' "Military Idol"-winner Michael Trotter Jr. and Tonya Blount-Trotter. They're married and have big, barreling voices that shook the Grandstands from the paddock area. The band mixes rock, blues and soul, and once the Trotters get going, their voices don't seem to have a ceiling. They sang original tunes, and the couple got playful together on "Jeep Cherokee Laredo." As they feigned canoodling together behind a tiny hand towel, they sang "It ain't nobody's business what we do in the back of our Jeep Cherokee Laredo." Michael Trotter also got playful with the audience, asking if he could "play his horn." He mimicked the sounds of a trumpet and trombone with his voice. After that went well, he said he was going to bring a guest to the stage. Or a ghost. He mimicked Louis Armstrong, with a deep, gravelly voice and scatted like Satchmo.

Pregnant pause
Multi-instrumentalist Leyla McCalla is pregnant with twins, so this set may have been one of the last opportunities for a while to hear her live. She led her ensemble, turning the relative serenity of the Lagniappe Stage into a piece of theater, with all eyes fixed on her, loosening the drama of her gorgeous, sometimes playful, sometimes heartbreaking songs. The performance served as a reminder of the emotional, powerful music she's made during her time in New Orleans and her gentle rendering of it, from folk poetry to calypso, cello-driven Haitian music to irreverent blues and discordant rock 'n' roll. She closed with "A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey," the title track from her acclaimed 2016 album and inspired by Haitian refugees' journeys — a two-chord first-person narrative that builds into a swaying rhythm, knocking against the tides. The song now resonates against the waves of anti-immigrant xenophobia and racism. "I sing it now in the spirit of that," she said.

Stomping grounds
With a raucous introduction from some dancing 610 Stompers, Sturgill Simpson and his ace band — complete with the slapping command of his bassist — melded the EDM on the programmed PA into a foot-stomping "Brace for Impact (Live a Little)" opener. Waves of audible appreciation swept through the opening-day Jazz Fest crowd, which soon heard about the devil and his horns and the sultry saxophone mastery of Brad Walker, who came on for a five-song suite. With the heart-tugging space-pirate paean to his son, "Welcome to Earth," Simpson maintained the emotional urgency and kept the show full of surprises, weaving in a deft "I'm on Fire" tease into "Long White Line" before closing it all down with a take on Freddie King's anthem "Going Down."

Terrace Martin helped produce and arrange Kendrick Lamar's last three albums, played alto sax on Kamasi Washington's new EP and will be featured on Herbie Hancock's forthcoming full-length record. At Jazz Fest, he took the WWOZ Jazz Tent stage as the headliner, along with a band of heavy hitters: Prince collaborator-cum-Instagram's first celebrity bassist MonoNeon, Snarky Puppy drummer and founder of Ghost-Note Robert "Sput" Searight, and James Francies, recent Blue Note signee and frequent keyboardist for The Roots on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Martin added sax flourishes to an instrumental version of "For Free," from Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly. The band played his rendition of Hancock's "Butterfly," Lamar track "untitled 05," and Martin welcomed Nicholas Payton to the stage for a song. Martin said he'd like to move to New Orleans. "But I can't," he said. "I love the smog and the traffic too much."

Amazing grace
Aaron Neville's stage performances seem to be getting quieter as the years go by, but his ability to tap into an audience's need for spiritual fulfillment is as strong as ever. His Gentilly Stage set was informed, in part, by the April 26 death of his brother, saxophonist Charles Neville, whose smiling face watched over the set in the form of a photo edited into a video image playing alongside Aaron's performance. While the show had its tepid moments, things started to gel after the "Three Little Birds / Stir It Up" Bob Marley medley. People age, change and have different sentiments to express. A fluttery and heartfelt version of "Tell It Like It Is" had fans swaying. By the time Neville sang the first few notes of "Amazing Grace," the set, along with the crowd, was directed back to church.

Beck and Cali
At the Acura Stage, Beck sounded strong and seemed inspired by New Orleans as he shared his experiences hanging out in the Big Easy for a few days before the festival. His band was brilliant as it built a soundscape tour of his previous recordings, cycling through tunes such as "Devil's Haircut," a lovely version of "Lovesick Blues" and a heartfelt rendition of "Raspberry Beret." Unfortunately, he also interrupted his own show to complain that he could hear the 808 track coming from LL Cool J's set at the Congo Square Stage.

Space program
Jupiter & Okwess from the Democratic Republic of Congo hit the Jazz & Heritage stage (as well as the Cultural Exchange Pavilion tent) with two guitarists, a bassist, a drummer and singer Jupiter Bokondji occasionally playing congas. The band mixes Afro-pop, folk music from Congo and rock, and its energetic set was full of propulsive rhythms with strains of funk and blues and guitar-driven space jams.

Near the Kids' Tent, it was easy to hear a joyous noise of banging sounds, chimes and stomping feet. Children batted flip flops against an array of marimba-like pipes, swung from an oversized porch swing below it, tickled a porch door filled with bells, and ascended and descended steps connecting two floors of musical architecture, with Quintron's weather-sensitive synthesizer whirring above it all like a crow's next. The structure is the latest from art collective Airlift and its Music Box Village project. Titled "Porch Life," it was created by Alita Edgar, Christian Repaal, Delaney Martin, Marshall Hawks and Taylor Lee Shepherd, with assistance from Leah Hennessy, Jay Pennington and instrumentation by Quintron, Meschiya Lake and Lindsay Karty. The semi-collapsible, sort-of-portable structure sits on a trailer and will be hauled to the Eaux Claires Festival in Eau Claire, Wisconsin this summer, followed by performances in Detroit and New York.

Step back
Savion Glover is a once-in-a-generation tap dancer. He finished the day in the WWOZ Jazz Tent, improvisationally tapping with an accompanying quintet. Often he worked his phenomenally fast steps in rhythmic exchanges with band members he singled out. At the end of the set, the band played "My Favorite Things," and Glover tapped through the first half before getting behind the drum kit to finish the song. He played drums before learning to tap, and he's got impressive chops there as well.

White noise
Under intense afternoon sun and only a stage away from fellow Detroiter Smokey Robinson, Jack White's fuzz- and sweat-covered set was jammed up with messy, disorienting nosedives from his confusing 2018 album Boarding House Reach to frenzied, festival-sized runs through White Stripes hits like "Fell in Love with a Girl," "Dead Leaves on the Dirty Ground," "My Doorbell" and closer "Seven Nation Army." New Orleans singer Esther Rose joined him for a song, a colorful contrast to the literal black-and-white look of the stage broadcast on the festival screens.

Don't mess with my song
On the Acura Stage, Irma Thomas spent much of her set singing songs about love and lost loves from her early catalog, including "Don't Mess With My Man," "It's Raining" and "Two Winters Long." Then she indulged in another one of her pastimes — reminding listeners that she sang some songs before certain Brits did (see "Time is on My Side" and the Rolling Stones). This time, the British technology and paranoia-driven series Black Mirror has used her 1964 song "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)" in several episodes. Thomas was happy to remind the audience what her version sounds like.

Star turn
In the WWOZ Jazz Tent, Quiana Lynell's set had a self-help and motivational-speaker tone. She's been on a roll since she won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition in November 2017, and she's been recording music for an album to be released on Concord Records. She opened with "I'm Gonna Live Till I Die," followed it with a song about chasing one's dreams, and then told the crowd, "Ask for what you want, because a closed mouth doesn't get fed." The highlight of the set was her version of Nina Simone's "Be My Husband," accompanied only by Jamison Ross drumming gently with mallets, and she turned the tune from an earnest plea for love to one of breathy desire.

Vice president
In the Blues Tent, Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton seems to have found his voice and vices simultaneously, celebrating and lamenting drinking and cheating in the styles of 1930s and '40s blues. Paxton switched from violin to guitar, banjo and piano, and saluted alcohol, "the source of and solution to all problems," singing "If whiskey were a river and I were a duck, I'd dive to the bottom and never come up." On a slightly more serious note, he tossed out some wisdom: "You can marry for money, but you'll earn every cent."

Steve Miller Blues Band
In between blocks of Steve Miller Band hits ("The Stake," "Swingtown," "Abracadabra," "Take the Money and Run"), '70s rocker Steve Miller said he wanted to dedicate a song to Fats Domino. But first he offered his take on the development of rock 'n' roll, starting with blues "moving from the Delta to New Orleans" and helping to create jazz. The blues also moved to Texas, and Miller wanted to talk about T-Bone Walker, arguing that Texas blues went to Chicago, thus triangulating the birth of rock between New Orleans, Texas and Chicago. He played "Mercury Blues" and Walker's "T-Bone Shuffle," and then got to the song he wanted to dedicate to Domino, slide guitarist Elmore James' "Stranger Blues." Acknowledging that he had talked for a while, he said, "This will put you in a coma" and sang "Wild Mountain Honey."

On A Cleary Day
Jon Cleary took to the Gentilly Stage with Derwin "Big D" Perkins on guitar and Lettuce funksters Nigel Hall (keyboards) and Eric "Benny" Bloom (trumpet, tambourine) for a big-band sound more than capable of pulling off a killer take on The Meters' "Just Kissed My Baby." The set closed with Cleary's New Orleans party anthem "Get Out the Way" and its bold "What we got / More hipper than what you got" bravado.

Walkin' you home
An all-star lineup paid tribute to Fats Domino on the Acura Stage. Among the highlights was Irma Thomas' bluesy version of "I Hear You Knocking," and her answer for what to do when one's partner goes looking for companionship elsewhere: "I went blueberry picking," she said as the band began "Blueberry Hill." Jon Batiste covered "Ain't That a Shame" and "I Want to Walk You Home." Bonnie Raitt was joined by Jon Cleary on piano for "All By Myself," which she dedicated to Domino and Charles Neville. Performers also included Davell Crawford, Deacon John and Al "Lil Fats" Jackson, who closed the show with "When the Saints Go Marching In."


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