French Quarter Festival gets down with the Dirty Dozen in the eye of the storm

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Rain stopped play, well, almost. Or intermittently, at least. According to locals, this was the first time in its 32-times history that the largely open-air French Quarter Festival had been inundated so comprehensively. Bandstands were vacated and sessions suspended as lightening scuppered the electrics and storm-force rain dampened enthusiasm, the crowds melting away. Some acts never got to play at all. What’s more of concern for those of an income-generating disposition, visitor numbers were hugely down from last year’s 733,000 to nearer half that multitude. Of course the hardy few watched on, clad in white plastic ponchos. All this in a year when the Festival had been extended to a fourth day, with a greater number of stages arranged and a record roster of players, 1,600 in all. Oh well.

Dodging the showers, your fearless reporter nevertheless managed to hear some stirring music. Putting aside the plethora of youthful brass bands popping up on every street corner, their instigation largely prompted by the early success of the Dirty Dozen, there was music aplenty on the street. This included Tanya & Dorise, a terrific swing violinist and guitarist, the Jackson Square irregulars sparked by the wide-ranging trumpet of brass band regular Kenneth Terry, and multiple casual spasm bands. And that’s not to overlook the packed clubs on Frenchmen Street, typified by the Spotted Cat or Snug Harbor. Trying to ignore the music blasting from the Bourbon Street joints, much of it raucous and quite blatant, there was better stuff from unidentified blues guitarists huddled in doorways as kids tap-danced for dimes and quarters, and impassioned clarinettist Doreen Ketcher on Royal Street, playing on tirelessly, accompanied by just tuba and snare drum. Incongruous maybe, but hey, that’s New Orleans.


In the Festival proper, the first standout set came from home-town favourite Allen Toussaint over on Riverfront Park, the piano maestro in a gleaming green jacket, the crowd standing toe-to-toe as he covered his array of hit tunes with a tough-sounding band, even if the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from his three female back-up singers added little. Toussaint, a well-preserved 77-year old, who plays Ronnie Scott’s, solo, in June [29-30] turned up again, this time in a natty flowered jacket, at a ‘Let Them Talk’ conversation with British writer John Broven, ostensibly to reminisce about legendary R&B recording man Cosimo Matassa, with veteran singer Deacon John alongside, their duo performance of ‘It’s Raining’ singularly appropriate given the foulness outside.

Another senior figure, the 80-year old Ellis Marsalis evaded the rain, drawing a packed crowd to Jackson Square, with a quintet performance that needed no defending on grounds of age. With drummer son Jason Marsalis always propulsive and uplifting and a soaring front-line of Ashlin Parker, trumpet, and Derek Douget, tenor and soprano, theirs was music with real bite and zest. Parker and Douget are both educators in the city and were new names to me but not to Ellis, for both had studied with him. “They keep me young,” he told me.

Ellis stretched out on pieces by one-time collaborators Alvin Batiste and James Black, avuncular in aspect but incisive in play, his crisp lines always harmonically canny and quite complex, his companions, including the excellent bassist Jason Stewart, responding with vigour and untrammelled creativity. Just to hear their version ‘Take the A Train’ was a delight, this familiar staple admirably re-shaped. Yet another of the Marsalis clan, trombonist Delfeayo turned up later in the Festival with the Uptown Jazz Orchestra, an ensemble of unknowns that mixed youngsters and grown-ups, their impressive set bisected by a lengthy hiatus amidst the rain while arguments about resumption ebbed and flowed. Eventually they did, to great effect, climaxing in a march though the assembled crowd in typical Crescent City fashion. Delfeayo fronted everything with great aplomb, playing a solo ballad with considerable sincerity, his in-person playing markedly more rewarding than many of his recordings might suggest.

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Other highlights included the mass presence of expatriate British traditionalists Barry Martyn, Andrew Hall, Chris Burke and Clive Wilson in the rather sedate Society Brass Band, with Wilson also fronting his excellent Serenaders Septet, Hal Smith swinging hard on drums. There was a pleasing set by trumpeter and sometime Connick-like vocalist Jeremy Davenport with Thaddeus Richard on piano, a cheery session out on Bourbon, minus electrics, by pianist Lars Edegran’s NO Jazz Band with the staccato trumpet attack of Gregg Stafford as its standout feature, and then the Festival’s final act, star trumpeter Leroy Jones and band on the Jackson Square stage, his clipped phrasing and relaxed vocal style as engaging as ever, the crowd braving the rain one last time.

As ever, New Orleans impresses as both a trumpet town, new names cropping up every time, and a haven for drummers, every street band sparked by a dread-locked youngster playing that snare-based street beat to perfection. What did we miss? Too much, no time for the zydeco or Cajun bands, for as Mahalia used to sing, ‘Didn’t It Rain’? Well, yes, it did and that was a drag. Still, there was a film programme, a series of stellar talks and lectures to enjoy, the unique ambience of the Quarter and great food too. Enough to make this observer want to do it all over again.

– Peter Vacher
– Photos by Zack Smith

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