Various Artists – Jazz Fest: The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Box Set | Album Review

Various Artists – Jazz Fest: The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

Disc 1 – 10Tracks/61:35

Disc 2 – 10 Tracks/59:25

Disc 3 – 11 Tracks?69:33

Disc 4 – 11 Tracks?68:33

Disc 5 – 11 Tracks/60:53

Earlier this year, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, an amazing accomplishment for business, let alone a festival that spans two weekends for seven days to celebrate the music, food, and culture of New Orleans and Louisiana. Jazz Fest is such an iconic event that Smithsonian Folkways Recordings decided to commemorate the milestone anniversary with a box set centered on fifty musical tracks consisting of live Jazz Fest recordings taken from a variety of sources, featuring many of the city’s favorite musicians.

The set is housed in a hardcover, tabletop size book with five discs, securely stored in pockets built into the last two pages, comprised of a heavier stock. The booklet contains plenty of vintage photos, like the one by Michael Smith on Page 20 with James Booker, the Piano Prince of New Orleans, smiling as he shakes hands with a young Harry Connick, Jr.. The original producer of the fest, George Wein, who’s accomplishments include establishing the Newport Jazz Festival, gets the honor of writing the introductory forward to the collection.

Following are three essays, the first examining the fifty years of Jazz Fest and it’s impact on the city, written by noted author Keith Spera. The second piece, written by Karen Celestan, delves into the role producer Quint Davis has played since he took over from Wein, growing the fest into an internationally recognized festival that continues to honor and promote the unique culture and musical aspects of the region. It falls to Robert H. Cataliotti to speak for the musicians in the final essay as to the lasting impact that Jazz Fest has had on their careers and on the local scene.

Also included are several multi-page photo spreads, done by Rachel Lyons, that shift the focus to other vital parts of the festival experience, including craft & cultural displays, the happenings off-stage, and of course, the vast array of culinary delights that make Jazz Fest such a unique event. Inside the front cover is a drawing of the layout of the fest in 1978, while inside the back cover has an aerial photo of the fairgrounds of the 2012 Jazz Fest for comparison.

As you sit back to start getting educated about the festival, you can enjoy the live recordings spread over five discs. The first disc opens with “Indian Red,” an anthem for the Mardi Gras Indians, performed by the Golden Eagles and their Big Chief, Monk Boudreaux. For that authentic feel, the second track offers a brief welcome, then slips into the funk, R&B, and jazz fusion of Trombone Shorty (Troy Andrews). Cuts by Donald Harrison Jr., the legendary Danny Barker, trumpeters Terrence Blanchard and Kermit Ruffins fronting his Big Band illustrate the scope of the city’s jazz traditions. Wein fronts the the Newport All-Stars on piano on “Back Home In Indiana,” connecting listeners to the music humble beginnings over eighty years prior. Two other highlights are a piano duet between Champion Jack Dupree and Allen Toussaint, and the final track, with vocalist John Boutte doing Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927”. His emotionally-charged rendition comes from the 2006 festival, the first after Hurricane Katrina had ravaged the city. He modified the lyrics so that the song became a reflection of a proud city struggling to endure and overcome.

The second disc is dedicated to some of the finest blues and R&B artists, with Toussaint making another appearance, backed by a large aggregation as he plays piano and takes the lead vocal on one of his many hit tunes, “Yes We Can Can”. Guitarist Earl King rolls through one of his memorable compositions, “Trick Bag,” his urgent pleas supported by Tommy Ridgley & the Untouchables. Miss Irma Thomas shows why she has always been considered the city’s Queen of Soul on “Ruler Of My Heart,” then Snooks Eaglin cuts loose on a fiery take of “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” pulling a cascading stream of notes from his guitar. The fun doesn’t stop as Clarence “Frogman” Henry showcases his vocal dexterity on his novelty hit, “Ain’t Got No Home”. One of the most influential players in a long line of ace piano players, Professor Longhair blended the rhythms of Caribbean music and Indian culture into a celebration of Mardi Gras on “Big Chief”. The Dixie Cups revisit their hit, “Iko Iko,” followed by the city’s adopted daughter, Marcia Ball, memorializing another tradition on “Red Beans”. The closing medley serves as a tribute to another great, the late Dr. John, his distinctive voice bringing the voodoo traditions to life over twelve minutes of glory taking listeners back to his Night Tripper persona.

Disc Three features the groundbreaking Dirty Dozen Brass Band, another recently departed piano giant, Henry Butler, reinventing a Professor Longhair song,and the glorious scat vocalizing by local favorite Germaine Bazzle. The Al Belletto Big Band and the Original Liberty Jazz Band approach jazz with different mindsets, with the latter turning in a beautiful version of the classic, “Summertime,” with Dr. Michael White demonstrating why he is recognized as one of the top clarinet players in a city full of them. Another long-running NO institution, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, delivers a rowdy, energetic run-through of “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It”. The final four tracks give listeners a peek into the Gospel tent, where groups like the Zion Harmonizers, the Johnson Extension, plus Raymond Myles and the Gospel Soul Children articulate the enduring healing power of the gospel hymns with performances that often surpass the energy and conviction seen on other stages throughout the festival. One track is taken from the appearance by Irma Thomas, doing “Old Rugged Cross” as part of one of her annual sets in the tent.

Disc Four unveils two more aspects of the New Orleans musical culture. The first two cuts put the spotlight on two of the foremost zydeco artists, Boozoo Chavis and Buckwheat Zydeco (Stanley Dural Jr.), who always kept the dance floors full with music centered around their accordions. Then we go deeper into the Louisiana countryside with the Savoy Family Cajun Band, Bruce Daigrepont, and perhaps the most famous of all of the Cajun bands, Beausoleil, for a different way to get people dancing, with fiddles, accordions, and guitars engaging in mesmerizing interplay. Art, Aaron, Charles, and Cyril remind us of the lasting impact the Neville Brothers have had on popular music on a funkified take of “Yellow Moon”. Not to be forgotten, blues music gets it’s due starting with Louisiana native, slide guitarist John Campbell, who foreshadowed the devastation of Hurricane Katrina with a brooding rendition of Memphis Minnie’s “When The Levee Breaks”. Another Fest regular, John Mooney, lays down some of the bottleneck slide guitar that made him a favorite, then Baton Rouge native Kenny Neal turns in a medley of Jimmy Reed tunes, backed by three members of his talented family. Toussaint returns with a big band, that includes guest Bonnie Raitt on slide guitar for “What Is Success”. Tommy Ridgley also gets another chance, his good-natured vocal the highlight on one of his hits, “Double-Eyed Whammy”.

It is hard to assess the impact that the Meters had on the world of popular music. Disc 5 starts off with a vivid reminder as original members Art Neville on organ and George Porter, Jr. on bass are joined Art’s son, Ian, on guitar for the classic “Fire On The Bayou,” performing as the Funky Meters. The guitar theme continues with dynamic performances from Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown,the beloved Walter “Wolfman” Washington, a stunning synthesis of the Elmore James electric slide style from Deacon John, immediately overshadowed by Sonny Landreth’s majestic slide work on “Blue Tarp Blues,” one more song bemoaning the aftermath of Katrina. Anders Osborne and his guitar arrived in the city thirty years ago. Since then, he has become an integral cog in the local music scene, with “Back On Dumaine” a vibrant homage to the place he calls home. The Subdudes mixed up styles into a hearty musical roux all their own, as witnessed on “Thorn In Her Side,” which takes the federal government to task for the handling of recovery efforts after the storm. The contemporary bounce genre is covered by the popular Big Freedia. The set finishes off with one from the Wild Magnolias featuring Boudreaux and Big Chief Bo Dollis, and one more Neville Brothers track, their usual medley of “Amazing Grace” and Bob Marley’s “One Love,” featuring Aaron’s ethereal voice, that was their closing piece on the last set on a main stage, on the final day of festival.

To complement the essay, the book has a page for each artist or band included on the set, with a photo and a snippet of information that outlines their place in the history of Jazz Fest. Some may question why certain artists do not appear on the collection. With so much material to choose from, the final product admirably encapsulates the original spirit of the Jazz Fest celebration as well as the musical and cultural traits that make New Orleans such a unique part of our nation’s tapestry. A project this comprehensive requires many hours of labor and nurture to become reality. The five co-producers – Jeff Place, Rachel Lyons, Dave Ankers, Michael Murphy, and Cilista Eberle – deserve hearty congratulations for assembling this monumental retrospective.

Longtime fans of Jazz Fest will need little encouragement to dive into this package and relive some of the magical memories from bygone fests. For those who have never had a Jazz Fest experience, this package will quickly allow you to vicariously enjoy one of the premier annual musical events on the planet. But be careful, it can be very, very addicting!

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