Terence Blanchard. (Photo: Morrice Blackwell.)
1:00 PM It was immediately clear that the Rebirth Brass Band would be a tough act to follow. Their lineup of three trumpets, tenor sax, trombone, sousaphone, and two drummers were working out their theme song, “Feel Like Funkin’ It Up,” demonstrating rather handily that hardcore funk is not so far removed from New Orleans traditional jazz and marching band styles. They then threw rock & roll into that same mix, making short work of The Rolling Stones classic “It’s All Over Now.”
Watching them, however, the most obvious continuum for the Rebirth Brass Band was that of D.C.’s own go-go scene. The riffs, the party chants, the aggressive rhythms were all there. The audience sensed it too: before the end of the set, the area in front of the stage was filled with men and women holding aloft umbrellas and blowing whistles, dancing and shuffling to their heart’s content. Rebirth was the party band of the day. 2:20 PM Announcer Willard Jenkins informed us that the Bob French Original Tuxedo Jazz Band had been founded in 1910 and in continuous operation since then. Ninety-nine years may indeed be long enough to leach the vitality out of music; the OTJB was unquestionably chopsy and polished, but missing a certain pizazz and energy that Dr. Michael White and the Original Liberty Jazz Band had in spades. They also had some sound problems, with clarinetist Orange Kelly inaudible when not soloing and pianist Paul Longstreth had microphone problems when trying to sing.
What the OTJB did have, though, was color—mainly in the persons of leader-drummer French and trombonist Frederick Lonzo. For Lonzo’s big feature “On the Back Porch,” he showed off a long descending slur—-long, as in several minutes (surely it was circular-breathed) —- with French urging him “Lower!” and “G’on down!” until Lonzo was actually well below the bass register. Then Lonzo began talk-singing, with plenty of double entendres (“when that big ol’ moon is shinin’…I’ll show you that big ol’ moon!” he shouted, grabbing his ass), and finished with another long note, this time sung, and with a short breath—-but Lonzo took it by spinning around and pretending that he was still singing, but we couldn’t hear him.
Then came a real singer: Juanita Brooks, who sang “Bye Bye Blackbird” in a smokey, faintly choked voice that hurt her vocal range a bit but was nonetheless silky-smooth in delivery. She apologized for this and for her casual attire (she’d been evicted from her hotel that morning, she explained) before launching a soft, emotional take on “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” A girl sitting next to me who introduced herself as Erin St. Pierre, a New Orleanian and LSU alum who shouted merrily at any reference to the Crescent City, turned to her friends after the song and said “Can I go home now?”
3:35 PM He was born in Macomb, Mississippi, but Little Freddie King has been a New Orleans bluesman since the ’50s. His sound is actually heavily rock-influenced, urban and slick, but with a fantastic electric harmonica by Bobby Louis Di Tullio Jr.. King, on guitar, divided the set between instrumentals and vocals on blues from all over the map: Mississippi, Chicago, Kansas City. A fellow concert watcher pointed out the rare commodity that King actually played guitar with his fingers.
The selection of songs was excellent, including “Bus Station Blues” and an extended, completely unique version of John Lee Hooker‘s anthem “Boogie Chillun.” Even more unique, however, was the original “Feed That Chicken Shuck That Corn”: guitar and harmonica both imitated squawking chickens and King crowed like a rooster as he sang of his father putting him to work as a child on the farm. Deep into the song, he announced “Now it’s time to do the chicken dance!” and began working his legs around his guitar like Chuck Berry.
It was so fantastic that it even overshadowed the elderly bluesman’s brief rendition of “Get Up, I Feel Like Being A Sex Machine.”
5:00 PM Banjoist Don Vappie‘s band, the Creole Jazz Serenaders, was also traditional New Orleans jazz but markedly different in sound. Vappie’s was a real orchestra, finding its core in the sounds of Fletcher Henderson and other proto-big bands. (The drummer, Ocie Davis, actually looked eerily like Fletcher Henderson.) They had an elegant sound that was nonetheless uproarious fun. They managed to turn Hank Williams‘ “Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” into a sexy, bellyrubbin’ slow dance, with tenor saxophonist Ray Moore contributing two extraordinary choruses: the first a Lester Young pastiche, the second one of the greasiest R&B solos imaginable.
The remainder of the set was all traditional and early jazz and Creole music, featuring the Creole traditional “Salle Dames, Bon Jour” done to a groove that evoked the original Latin jazz tune, “The Peanut Vendor.” This tune also featured a Creole singalong, with Vappie calling out French phrases for the audience to repeat, and then a break into easy swing for the first time. Pianist Larry Sieberth also shone, giving a truly gutbucket solo on “Buddy Bolden Blues,” and bassist Mark Brooks emanated surprisingly pure funk on the shouting “Long Gal in a Short Dress.” Good stuff, and endearingly different.
6:25 PM Terence Blanchard threw a change-up. That the trumpeter and his band would be performing his beautiful, somber 2007 album A Tale of God’s Will: Requiem for Katrina was so well established that it was announced at the press junket for last year’s festival. But Blanchard has a new album coming out in August called Choices (Concord Jazz), and that was where his energies were focused. “All of the music you’ll hear tonight is from that album,” he announced from the stage.
Blanchard didn’t announce titles, but he explained that the album’s concept is “How life is all about the choices we make, every second of every day,” and that it would feature spoken-word performance by Dr. Cornell West. West’s words were from a recorded conversation with Blanchard, and appeared throughout the stellar performance. Blanchard and tenor saxophonist Brice Winston played passionately, together and in solo, and the rhythm section was uncanny in its ability to respond to and even anticipate the front line. Fabian Alamazan played piano with great classical touches, but without every sacrificing the jazz flair, while bassist Michael Olatuja (subbing for Blanchard’s regular bass player Matt Brewer) was deceptive in his timekeeping; his changes of course to follow Blanchard and Winston were so subtle as to be barely noticeable. As for Kendrick Scott, he remains perhaps the drummer of his generation, graceful and supple with nonstop virtuosic ability.
I can’t wait for this album to come out.