Smithsonian Folkways Marks 50th Anniversary of New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival with Stunning 5 Disc Deluxe Set of Live Performances (ALBUM REVIEW)

These past couple weeks, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival web stories were all about big name headliner acts. Of course, The Rolling Stones were due to play there this year until Mick Jagger had his unexpected surgery. Today’s recap included Bonnie Raitt, The Indigo Girls, Santana and Van Morrison. Yet, aside from the popular acts that grace those hallowed stages, the NOJ&HF was originally intended to showcase New Orleans and Louisiana music. It still does that in a major way, but that’s not the stuff for national headline stories. Smithsonian Folkways got it right. They cover the roots of Louisiana music from Jazz to Bounce, Zydeco to Gospel, Brass Band to R&B with mostly unreleased material from 1974 -2016. In this comprehensive box set package (that must weigh three pounds) there is a 136-page booklet on thick paper stock, full of glossy photographs, tremendous historical information about overcoming financial struggles. Jim Crow, and local politics; as well as detailed observations on the 53 tracks spread across the five discs and over 300 minutes of music. The intent is to present the sounds of the festival as you’d hear them while wandering across the 145 acres of the New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Track in the Gentilly neighborhood.

Many of these recordings come courtesy of New Orleans radio WWOZ and for live recordings, though not pristine, they are pretty good. As mentioned, there are detailed descriptions of each track providing dates, band personnel and insights about the performers. Many performances are set closers, as you hear leaders introducing band members; and many include famous New Orleans tunes.

Disc One starts with the song “Indian Red,” sung here by The Golden Eagles, a song traditionally sung at the opening of Mardi Grad Indian parades and gatherings. The set ends on Disc 5 appropriately with “Amazing Grace.” There are some unexpected segues. For example, The Golden Eagles, are followed by Trombone Shorty, one of the city’s most contemporary artists. From this point Disc One stays devoted to jazz, featuring saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., a tribute to Louis Armstrong from Kermit Ruffins, fiery trumpeter Terence Blanchard doing an explosive “A Streetcar Named Desire,” guitarist Danny Barker leading a large ensemble for “Basin Street Blues,” founder George Wein’s Newport All-Stars, mixed with NOLA pianists Champion Jack Dupree and Allen Toussaint on boogie woogie piano as well as stellar vocalist John Boutte delivering a killer “Louisiana 1927.”

Discs Two and Three focus on blues, soul and R&B with names you’d expect like Toussaint. Irma Thomas, Snooks Eaglin, Earl King, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Marcia Ball, and Dr. John. We also hear from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Professor Longhair, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Henry Butler, soul natives Dixie Cups and gospel greats Zion Harmonizers and Johnson Extension, among others. At this point, it’s time to take stock of the major standout tracks through the first three discs. They include Boutte’s take on Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927,” Dr. John “The Night Tripper’s” twelve-minute medley beginning with “Litanie des Saints,” Preservation Hall’s “my Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” and “Old Rugged Cross” from Irma Thomas. You’ll find surprisingly lively performances from the lesser known names too. For example, Germaine Bazzle and Red Tyler Quintet, Al Belletto’s Big Band, and Original Liberty Jazz Band all sparkle. Of course, there is no filler material. It all deserves a listen.

Disc Four features Cajun and Zydeco music from Buckwheat Zydeco, Boozoo Chavis, The Savoy Family Cajun Band, and Beausoleil. We also get the main stage performances from The Neville Brothers and Allen Toussaint’s collaboration with Bonnie Raitt. Searing slide guitarists John Mooney and John Campbell deliver, and the ever entertaining Kenny Neal and Tommy Ridgley bring real deal blues. Disc Five spans several genres beginning with the Funky Meters rendering the New Orleans favorite “Fire on the Bayou” followed by the amazing fast fingers of Clarence Gatemouth Brown taking Ellington’s “Take the A Train” into mind-boggling territory. We also hear from city mainstays Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Anders Osborne, and The Subdudes. Sonny Landreth delivers one of the package’s outstanding performances in his Katrina-inspired “Blue Tarp Blues,” an event that the festival somehow endured and survived. NOLA’s Big Freedia represents hip-hop before giving way to the Wild Magnolias and then, naturally, The Neville Brothers with “Amazing Grace.”

Much of what happens at the heralded New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival takes place in the Jazz tent, the Gospel tent, or smaller stages while the main stage acts garner the headlines. Talk to any performer in the lineup on any stage though, and it’s a deeply held honor to the play the NOJ&HF. That respect, passion, and inherent musicality comes through in every one of these 53 performances. It’s almost futile to call out the individual standouts.

It’s a testament to just how many great bands there are in New Orleans and Louisiana that we could easily come up with a sixth disc, had there been room for the late Johnny Adams, Galactic, Dumpstafunk, Corey Henry’s Treme Funktet, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Tab Benoit, Charlie Wooten, Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah, and countless other zydeco and brass bands. This is not a quibble, just a small observation.

Newport Jazz producer George Wein was asked to come to New Orleans in 1962 to create a similar festival but he soon learned that the Newport model wouldn’t work. As he says, “The festival that I envisioned for the city where jazz was born had to be unique; it had to reflect the entire spectrum of Louisiana’s musical heritage. I wanted to use New Orleans and Louisiana artists almost exclusively to showcase this wealth of local culture. And tickets had to inexpensive so that people form every economic level of New Orleans life could attend.” In a few short years, under Wein’s tutelage, Quint Davis, now considered one of the most unique producers of outdoor music festivals in American history, took over. The booklet has an excellent seven-page section where Davis gives his perspective over the past 50 years, ending with this passage, “New Orleans music is the least commercial music in the world, but it’s hitting them (Jazz Fest patrons). If your spirit is down, this festival will clean your circuits and recharge your battery. It’s a special thing. New Orleans is a funk principality! New Orleans is the Magic Kingdom!”

Davis is right on target. This is as glorious a box set of music that’s ever been done with various artists. It’s that good. Let it rip!

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