Jazz Fest represents the Platonic ideal of a music festival. In an era where we literally have more calendar days featuring outdoor music festivals than summer, the event has managed to last nearly 50 years. And though every year solicits a few more grumbles about ticket prices, crowd sizes, and unusual bookings, every edition of Jazz Fest manages to bring together people—all ages, all identities, from all over—in a way few other entities can.
Things like local traditions and unbelievable food play a role, but that appeal largely stems from the music. Today’s festivals try to stand out from a crowd through things like extravagant VIP packages or one-time only reunion performances. But here and nowhere else can you consistently see genre-spanning legends (Paul Simon to Herbie Hancock to Chaka Khan), modern acts (Xtina to HFTRR to Arcade Fire), and local royalty old-and-new (Glen David Andrews, Hot 8, Jon Batiste, etc.) all on equal-billing. Jazz Fest manages to have children’s music open the day, a brass band keep it going, and Nick Jonas close it all within a single stage. “There’s more talent in the Gospel Tent than on this whole stage and we’re humbled to play this festival,” Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler said right before closing his 2014 set. “May it always be about musicians.
This years marks the first Jazz Fest I’ll miss since moving on from NOLA. Now in Austin, you can get your unique and local music event fix from SXSW, but that represents something else entirely. As Butler put it during his band’s last Jazz Fest performance, “This is one of the last places in America that its own place; for the rest of us there’s this.” Austin and SXSW have some degree of weird left in ‘em, but it feels like hip cities and large music festivals today all increasingly have a degree of homogeneity to them. With NOLA and Jazz Fest, culture blissfully remains preserved for now.
So with the 2017 event kicking off this week, here’s a fond look back at 2016:
Even the most strident Jazz Fest supporter would admit seeing legends can be a mixed bag. Last year, Elton John proved every bit the showman and pianist, but his high register had long faded and that changed songs like “Levon.” Just last weekend, Van Morrison’s performance comes across quite differently depending on who you ask.
But while Paul Simon has visibly aged, his abilities haven’t. During an hour-and-a-half-plus set, he remained every bit the musician of memory. Simon never backed away from an iconic musical snippet, and he immersed himself in the set even when away from the mic. The musician frequently turned to conduct his band, calling for phrasings or instruments to come to the forefront or bring it down pending on what he heard. A subdued whistling verse in “Me and Julio” aside, Simon strummed the well-knows riffs, gracefully handled high note choruses like in “50 Ways,” and sustained perfectly in-sync multi-part harmonies including an acapella opening to “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.”
Even if the ability persists, song choice can also undo the experience of seeing an all-time great. (Anyone see Neil Young while he peddled his green planet-themed Greendale?) Simon avoided these pitfalls too. His setlist doubled as a greatest hits, encompassing everything from A-level B-sides like “Duncan” and “The Boy In The Bubble” to era-defining songs like “You Can Call Me Al” and “The Boxer.”
Even detours from the iconic Paul Simon songbook engaged the crowd. Simon snuck in two songs from Stranger to Stranger, his upcoming album, and they felt shockingly in place. The June 3 release date now feels intriguing and not potentially cringeworthy. “The Werewolf” in particular had plenty of Simon DNA with an indigenous drum beat and full choir moments juxtaposed against flourishes of Delta blues’ harmonica and guitar. And after paying his respects to the great Allen Toussaint early on—”I’d like to dedicate this show to Allen Toussaint,” Simon said, wearing a large pin of the artist. “We all loved him very much”—he later dug out his Louisiana-inspired “That Was Your Mother.” For a musician known by his mastery of folk and his love of African music, Simon demonstrated he can still do a very capable Cajun Zydeco impression.
Like multiple lunches and happy accidents at the Lagniappe stage, Jazz Fest has schedule conflicts in its DNA. Friday’s Sophie’s choice—Paul Simon, Lauryn Hill, or My Morning Jacket—ranks among this year’s toughest, and recency bias would suggest Simon as the least exciting option. But eyes closed, aggressively rhythmic and instrumentation-heavy passages like the extended groove section of “The Cool, Cool River” could just as easily be coming from a modern-day headliner like Vampire Weekend or Yeasayer. So despite every intent to hop around, this performance wouldn’t let that happen. Simon somehow proved to be both of a time and timely
Nicholas Payton & Afro-Caribbean Mixtape
Seeing a full DJ setup front-and-center at the Jazz Tent provided all the visual clues needed to understand Nicholas Payton. A gifted trumpeter, Payton could earn a prime slot at Jazz Fest merely by stuffing a set full of classics and contemporary jazz favorites. But his performance indicated that type of straightforward thinking doesn’t interest him; this artist relishes in the contradictory. Payton clearly wants an audience to engage with and reflect upon music beyond the familiar.
Payton’s new Afro-Caribbean Mixtape quintet (with a corresponding album called Textures due out this year) excels in this area. One song features a spoken word sample about assimilation that leads into a traditional PBS-style bit of elevator jazz phrasing. The next starts with a bit of bongo playing that would fit within a Jack Johnson-style jam band, pivots to use electronic key voicings ala Stevie Wonder, and then somehow incorporates Payton moving from piano to trumpet in order to take a solo that seemingly references “Think of Me” from Phantom of the Opera.
In one particular standout track, Payton takes to the mic to repeat the sung phrase “Jazz is a four-letter word,” and the soundscape built around these lyrics only emphasizes the point. Payton started the track by creating a strong repetitive piano rhythm and then using a loop pedal to lock in the pattern before heading to the mic. Additional percussion comes from electronic drum voicings, and his DJ (DJ Ladyfingers) mixes in scratching with spoken word samples declaring “We’re thinking about MJ, Aretha… exemplifying the genius of black creativity.” This soundscape would be at home on a release from modern beatmakers like De La Soul. But then as everything appears to be crescendoing towards an even more complex whole, Payton takes to the trumpet in order to snap the band out of controlled chaos and into a contradictory bit of uptempo contemporary jazz. The song eventually veers back towards to beat-heavy groove as Payton concludes by compelling his audience to repeat that introductory phrase back at the stage.
Towards the end of his set, Payton paid homage to his New Orleans home by allowing the band to take a familiar stylistic detour. A second-line style beat reminiscent of the “Treme Song” started up, and soon Payton led a traditional NOLA-brass track that included rhyming references to Tipitina’s and Mandina’s. This may have had the crowd dancing more than at any other point during the performance, but Payton could’ve clearly delivered more if that was his intent. Instead, he built a set meant to stay with an audience long after the last note. Based on the performance, most in attendance will be pondering it until everyone can get their hands on Textures.
Nick Jonas didn’t acknowledge it, but a majority of the fairgrounds had to be thinking it. “What’s he doing here?” After all, the young singer’s fame still largely stems from the Disney Channel bump and not his (now lengthy) musical background. But at the Gentilly Stage, he didn’t need theatrics—the performance answered that lingering question.
Jonas excited a (younger-appearing, admittedly) crowd by weaving his hits together with a few lesser known tracks and some unanticipated covers. And despite the stylistic differences between a song like Jonas’ new, ballad-y “Never Get Over” and a single like “Purple Rain” (yes, he did), the pop star and his backing band excelled throughout.
It’s easy to imagine a track like Jonas’ hit “Levels” relies heavily on studio production, but the talent of his band becomes readily apparent live. The bridge and post-chorus sections of the song borrow heavily from funk, and the group made all the unison pops in strong sync as a booming bass drove the action. Jonas’ high register proved up to the challenge of rising above it all when needed (other covers within the set like Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” only confirmed this), and he demonstrated a comfort as an onstage showman that few his age possess.
Though perception still paints Jonas as a tween-sensation, his current trajectory has precedent well beyond that niche. Child star turned pop star turned critically beloved musician could describe Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake, or a handful of other icons. Jonas may get there in the end. On this day at least, even seemingly reluctant parents in the crowd appeared to acknowledge that in the end his set included no guilt, only pleasure.
Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter
By the fourth time festival staff made the announcement, the over-stuffed Jazz Tent crowd could likely repeat it word-for-word: “There’s this thing in New Orleans called fire regulations…”
After about 2:45 p.m., it felt near impossible to find a seat (even for one) ahead of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter’s scheduled 4:10 p.m. start. Congestion during the last few tunes of the Herlin Riley Quintet felt more like the Acura stage. Fans sat elbow-to-elbow on the ground alongside the perimeter walkways, and staff eventually prevented any new concert-goers from entering (or those seated and thirsty from leaving then re-entering) through at least first 20 minutes of the Hancock/Shorter performance.
The pandemonium made sense. Both Shorter and Hancock qualify as modern jazz royalty, each having played directly with the great Miles Davis before going on to craft their own notable discographies. But if it first seemed peculiar to book such giants for the Jazz Tent instead of a larger outdoor space, everything soon made sense. Anyone seeing “Herbie Hancock” on the schedule and expecting “Watermelon Man” or “Rockit” quickly received a reality check.
Instead, Shorter and Hancock entranced an eager crowd with nearly an hour and a half of avant-garde, fusion jazz. Any setlist afterward would look sparse (if decipherable in the first place), but the performance caused the capacity tent to lean in, jump back, and stare in awe—often all within the same piece of music.
With unclear starts and stops (the crowd found maybe five opportunities for applause throughout, and some of those appeared to occur mid-song in retrospect), this set centered on moments. The way Hancock and Shorter initially traded seemingly disparate phrasings back-and-forth amid extended silence brought to mind the way siblings can communicate with only the slightest prompt. They constantly displayed virtuosity in subtle ways, with Shorter effortlessly reaching the higher echelon of his alto sax’s range to lay down quick triplets on top of a nimble, contradictory run of sixteenth notes from Hancock’s piano. By about 4:45 p.m., the “Rockit” crowd shuffled out to make room for the captivated.
Roughly halfway through the set, Hancock shifted to his signature Kronos synth and the performance picked up pace. First he laid down some soaring, space-y voicings to establish the new sound. Then, Hancock took to some percussive effects and a loop pedal to craft a bold, almost abrasive beat. It defiantly established a rhythm that eschewed any downbeats, allowing Shorter to make screeching runs along the alto’s high register as Hancock soon followed suit on piano. More phone recordings happened during this passage than at any other point in the set.
Before beginning one last performance, Hancock and Shorter gave the crowd a break. They took their hands back from the instruments and slowly rose to receive a round of applause that lasted as long as a song would on any other stage. But here, the songs—really musical ideas—stretched 10, 11, 12, sometimes even 20 minutes and beyond. Of those who stayed, no one complained. It felt like we all just sat in on an intimate, relaxed brainstorming session between two legends, complete with a few instants of irreplicable brilliance.