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Digital Voodoo

By Marc Weidenbaum

Each spring, the historic port city of New Orleans, Louisiana, plugs into its rich musical culture with a week-plus series of events. All manner of jazz and other indigenous regional acts, from Cajun and zydeco to the neighboring sounds of tejano, congregate at the Fair Grounds Race Course for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, widely known simply as Jazz Fest. And all the better, they bring along their cuisine — not only jambalaya, crawfish pie and filé gumbo, but boudin sausage, alligator po-boy sandwiches, and icy snoball treats.

New Orleans is renowned for its cultural near-stasis — less the city that time forgot than the city that forgot time — and Jazz Fest, which celebrated its 34th consecutive year in 2003, likewise morphs at its own subtle pace. It wasn’t until 2002 that a performance tent dedicated to the blues was added. Progress does occur. The city’s substantial Vietnamese and Middle Eastern immigrant communities are now represented in the Fest’s food courts with vermicelli plates and kebab sandwiches. One big story in recent years has been the expanding presence of jam bands at Jazz Fest. Groups such as Phish, Widespread Panic and String Cheese Incident draw large, young crowds who, in turn, help pay the bills. (Proceeds from the festival go to the non-profit New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation.) The result is an ever-growing sea of Caucasian dreadlocks, which nay-saying traditionalists consider a greater threat to the region than sprawling kudzu vines, metastasizing river hyacinth, or whatever else Mother Nature has thought up this month. But these jam acts manage to fit in — rather than overwhelm — thanks to their emphasis on improvisation and on the blues roots of rock’n’roll.

New Orleans has a lot of history, and not all of it predates Yankee occupation. Rock, for example, deserves a place at Jazz Fest. In 1945, Roy Brown recorded “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” cited as one of the earliest rock songs, at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Recording Studio on North Rampart, at the edge of the French Quarter; that spot is now a washeteria — local parlance for laundromat — with an inexplicable luau theme. Little Richard and Fats Domino recorded at J&M as well. Jerry Lee Lewis was born upriver in Ferriday and recorded his first work at J&M, and Elvis Presley filmed his best movie here (perhaps his one good movie), King Creole. And the stripped down syncopations of the aptly named Meters, the legendary New Orleans rhythm section, served as a sample database for nascent hip-hop. The jam-band community has reciprocated for its acceptance at Jazz Fest, naming its big gathering, the Bonnaroo Festival, for a song by one of New Orleans’ favorite sons, singer-pianist Dr. John.

And there is a slow-growing presence of electronic music here, in part as an outgrowth of the jam phenomenon. Now understand, Jazz Fest is still no place to go for a sure digital fix, and it’s unlikely to be one anytime soon. But from DJs to live processing, from hip-hop to what was briefly known as “acid jazz,” from after-hours parties to mid-week shows, Jazz Fest 2003, which took place between April 24 and May 4 of this year, offered a taste of jams to come. And to stumble upon electronic elements at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is a bit like running into an old friend while traveling abroad. It’s exciting to see how comfortably your buddy has settled into an exotic locale.

1. Setting the Stage: The Jazz Fest layout and lowdown What had long been two consecutive weekend concerts has expanded over the years into a week-plus straight of 24-hour musical immersion. Jazz Fest proper runs from morning until near-dusk at the Fair Grounds, this year from Thursday through Sunday for two weeks in a row. Every club in town goes out of its way to pack its schedule with bands, and increasingly some of the most exciting events occur in the evening and during the three days between the two long Fest weekends, a situation not dissimilar to the unofficial satellite showcases held during SXSW in Austin and at the Winter Music Conference in Miami each year.

Visitors from around the world, and from deep in the bayou, come to town to take part in Jazz Fest. The Fair Grounds is divided into open-air stages and blessedly shady tents, including two devoted to jazz (the tradition-minded Economy Hall and the larger, more catholic Jazz Tent), as well as spots for gospel, blues and other music. Each year the odd big-name headliner (Sting, Lenny Kravitz, Dave Matthews) is greatly outnumbered by a cornucopia of brass bands, Dixieland combos, and accordion and washboard virtuosos.

Much as New Orleans is largely the result of technology — the city would not exist were it not for the ingenuity of levees and, later, vast pumping systems to keep the water out of, or at least under, the streets — the festival is also technologically dependent. Even the most retro acts couldn’t play to the large crowds but for the grace of microphones and amplification, and there’s enough cabling at the back of the gospel tent alone to hog-tie an elephant. There’s a certain tasty frisson to tripping over thick power lines, and elbowing past vast mixing boards, on the way to hear, say, 87-year-old David “Honeyboy” Edwards perform his acoustic blues; Edwards’ relative fame can be credited to his “discovery,” in the early 1940s, by rural-music folklorist Alan Lomax, who scoured the country with a new fangled tape recorder.

2. Internal Logic: have turntables, will convert to hip-hop New Orleans lays a rightful claim to jazz’s birthplace, but in the past decade the city’s musical fortunes have been tied to hip-hop. Mystikal, DJ Jubilee, various members of Cash Money Millionaires and of Master P’s No Limit label have occasionally made their presence known at Jazz Fest. Rap performances take place on the stage called Congo Square, which has also hosted rising Afro-beat musician Femi Kuti (son of Nigerian legend Fela) and the popular local R&B singer Irma Thomas.

Despite the scattering of rap each year, the genre is still somewhat marginalized at Jazz Fest, and even longtime attendees manage to avoid it. Here’s an example: There was a Q&A session this year with George Wein, the concert producer, held in the Fair Grounds Grandstand. At the end of the session, members of the audience got to ask questions. Local saxophonist Kidd Jordan reached the microphone and commented on how it might be necessary, down the road, to include rap at the festival to get “kids” to come along — call this the bait-and-switch school of music education. The uncomfortable silence that followed Jordan’s statement may have had less to do with the fact that he was making a speech rather than asking a question of Wein, and more to do with the fact that rappers Lil Romeo (son of Master P) and LL Cool J were on this year’s festival bill. Jordan has performed on and off at Jazz Fest since the very first one was held in 1970.

Not all of the city’s jazz elite are as blissfully (willfully?) unaware of hip-hop’s insurgence. Some actively engage the genre, turntables and all. Last year, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band played a nightly week-plus stint during Jazz Fest at the Mermaid Lounge, a tinderbox of a club situated beneath the entrance to the Mississippi River Bridge, on the edge of the gentrifying Central Business District. For 11 evenings in a row, the band played a rousing set, then brought DJ Logic up for a collaborative set, and then let Logic take over the stage, where he played until the crowd dwindled, often close to dawn. (DJ Logic spoke at length with Disquiet.com during the 2002 Jazz Fest, and that interview is available here: “Sonic Anomaly.”)

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band are likely early adopters of hip-hop. Though the group is now understood to be one of the city’s upholders of a grand tradition, when it first started out, in 1977, it was criticized for blending contemporary R&B into its sound. The Dirty Dozen has toured with Florida shock-rap sensation Luther Campbell (of 2 Live Crew) and featured Logic on its last studio album, Medicated Magic. (Logic and the Dozen record for the same record label, Ropeadope.)

Logic is an eager collaborator, especially during Jazz Fest. Last year he sat in on stage with Ratdog, the band led by Dead guitarist Bob Weir. This year he performed for one night with the reunited Headhunters (performing without Herbie Hancock), who record for the local Basin Street Records label.

For the 2003 festival week, the Dirty Dozen moved its nightly stint to the nearby Twiropa (a former mill: twine, rope, paper — get it?), and Logic inherited the mantle at the Mermaid, following such acts as jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter (former member of the rap act Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, and another Ropeadope recording artist), and often joined onstage by guest musicians. Late one evening, Logic started a set with “Herbman,” the song he recorded with Olu Dara, better known to Logic’s peers as the father of rapper Nas. Logic mixed in what sounded like a loopy guitar solo from a Dead or Phish song, and scratched a brief riff with what sounded like a whistle, but, when he lifted his nimble palm and allowed the track to play out, revealed itself to be an organ track. He augments his set with a Kaos Pad, a digital device that allows for live sampling and effects. Turntablists being like magicians, Logic knew how to use illusion to his advantage, favoring tracks that themselves consisted of evident multiple layers, so it was never clear how much he was manipulating or adding, and how much he was just choosing good tunes.

What made a Logic set fit in with Jazz Fest was the sounds he chose to focus on: violins and electric guitars and funk were common elements, all of which could easily have emanated from any one of the festival stages earlier in a given day. To that end, he was seemingly sampling the day’s affair, “processing the present.” The sound was less silky and soulful than his Project Logic band, and less macho-funky than the Yohimbe Brothers (his recent collaboration on Ropeadope with guitarist Vernon Reid), and perfectly appropriate to the Jazz and Heritage vibe.

3. Random Notes: the ghost of Charles Ives, satellite shows, steps ahead and back a. Variations on America: The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is a great place during which to hear a lot of music, often simultaneously. In the Fest’s Jazz Tent, a sizable space that could accommodate a high-school graduation, anything more quiet than a mid-tempo piano solo was likely to have an oompah overlay from the neighboring folk-art exhibit. Across a gauntlet of Porta-lets from the Jazz Tent, native American Indians plied their crafts and chanted chants. Echoes of guitar solos and roaring crowds emanated from the Fest’s distant main stage. And at any moment, an ersatz second-line parade might trounce by, horns and drums playing trad jazz in alternately maudlin or joyous modes.

During all this, one couldn’t help but think of composer Charles Ives’ fascination with overlapping parade bands, especially when a brass ensemble saunters by during another group’s set. Ives’ exploration of meshed sounds, in particular with musical quotation, laid the conceptual groundwork for musique concrete and other forms that came about as technology became affordable and readily available, following his death in the late 1950s. His skill was in recognizing not a signal within a noise, but the signal that resulted from a collection of noises, and one imagines that he would have had a blissful afternoon at Jazz Fest.

b. An Electric Spectacle: One highlight of the evening shows was a performance by the electronic acts Adult and Magas at the Spellcaster, a basement club run by local keyboardist and technologist Quintron across the street from the Saturn Bar on St. Claude Avenue. Quintron has made a career for himself with his Drum Buddy, a light-sensor beatbox he invented and that he uses in concerts around town. MC’ing the Adult/Magas show, he referred to the evening’s festivities — which were well attended, despite the relative decline in tickets sold for this year’s Fest — as a “Cajun Rave.”

c. Automatic for the People: OffBeat magazine, a locally produced roots-music monthly with an international readership, produces a thick companion volume to Jazz Fest each year, and the 2003 edition had a brief paragraph of particular interest: Dan “The Automator” Nakamura is set to produce the next album from Galactic, a local success story of a groove band that’s made a big impression in the jam community. Nakamura is best known for his work with the Beastie Boys and Gorillaz, pop acts infused with studio ingenuity. Galactic will work wonders under Nakamura’s spell. Their deep grooves, descendent from New Orleans’ Meters, are tailor made for sampling, and the group has already shown interest in electronics, having included DJ Z-Trip on the bill of recent shows (Z-Trip will be the resident turntablist on the upcoming Jam Cruise). Galactic drummer Stanton Moore worked with Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, the city’s main digital-music proponent, on Clint Mansell’s soundtrack to the film World Traveler, and he included looping technology on his debut solo album, Flyin’ the Koop.

d. In the Woodwind: You also needn’t track down futurists and retro-futurists to take the digital pulse of Jazz Fest. To hear a clarinetist in the Onward Brass Band take a single note and transform it by contorting it, twisting it like a piece of soft, rusty metal for the better half of a minute, was to have no doubt as to the role jazz played in prepping our minds for electronic music — not simply as an influence, but because by robustly tweaking tone, rather than emphasizing melody, the clarinetist was working with the instrument as a machine, which he bent to his will.

4. Turncoat in Silk: onetime “young lion” plugs in and wails For fans of electronically mediated music, one major highlight of the daytime Fest this year was an appearance by a new band led by trumpeter Nicholas Payton. A local musician who turned 30 this year, Payton came to national recognition in the wake of the jazz revolution led by a fellow New Orleanian trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis, and he released a series of albums for the esteemed Verve label. Payton and Verve parted ways following his last record, Dear Louis, which was released in 2001, the centennial of the birth of Louis Armstrong, the original New Orleanian jazz trumpeter.

If Payton and Co.’s performance at Jazz Fest was typical of his new direction, Sonic Trance’s inevitable debut album might be titled Dear Miles, so much is the group dedicated to the electric-era recordings of trumpeter Miles Davis — whose early work was as praised by Marsalis as the later, plugged-in work was derided. On the second Saturday of Jazz Fest, May 3, during an hour-plus 4:00pm set, Payton and Sonic Trance ditched neo-traditionalism in favor of music deeply resonant of the fusion that followed in the wake of Davis’s electric experiments, updated with nods to dub and digital sampling. (As it turns out, the band’s debut will be titled Sonic Trance, and Warner Bros. Records has scheduled it for release in September of this year.)

The concert opened with a song that Payton called “Séance.” It had an obvious debt to Davis’ In a Silent Way, thanks in no small part to the ensemble’s pair of keyboardists, Aaron Goldberg on piano and Fender Rhodes, and Scott Kinsey (of the fusion band Tribal Tech) on two Nords: a Lead 2 (a digital instrument that imitates the sound and functionality of an analog synthesizer) and an Electro 2 (which simulates various “electromechanical” keyboards, notably the B-3 organ and piano). Sonic Trance also featured bassist Vicente Archer; Payton’s longtime drummer, Adonis Rose, and saxophonist, Tim Warfield; and a somewhat distracting percussionist, Danny Sadownick, who was an all-around noisemaker with a big grab bag of sonic toys. The jazz of Payton’s Sonic Trance is unapologetic in its electrical-ness. Payton hooked his trumpet up to a wah-wah pedal for a song that recalled the blaxploitation flair of the Shaft movie theme. He employed intense echo on a song he referred to as “Velvet Handcuffs” and on another song that he dedicated to Fela Kuti, simply titled “Fela.” As the band stretched out, it gathered the combustion of the darker Davis works, notably tracks like “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” off Bitches Brew and the distorted funk of his On the Corner record.

Dressed in a pimp-quality white suit, Payton embraced the entertainer aspect of being a band leader. One song, “Two Mexicans on the Wall” (it might have been “Two Mariachis on the Wall”), started off with a lengthy quote from “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” And as the concert progressed, Payton went further afield with his technology — sampling his own riff on trumpet, and then playing atop it. The crowd ate it up, even though the moment was more of a stunt than a compositional tool. It’s worth noting that Payton was doing similar things earlier in the concert, but he really had to draw attention to the activity to get credit for it from the audience.

Another standout moment in the set was a song he called “Cannabis Leaf Rag,” a deft and humorous concoction of one part “Maple Leaf Rag” and one part “The Entertainer.” Compositionally, the song recalled the popular trend of remixes and, especially, “mash-ups,” in which two or more songs are yoked together, often against the will of the individual compositions (not that there isn’t a strong tradition in jazz of quoting and rearranging familiar songs). Payton forged a peace between the two ragtime favorites by making his compositional technique self-evident: starting off slowly and laying the melodies out as if unfolding a blueprint; the widely spaced note placements could be heard as tentative, but the tentativeness was a ploy, and as the piece progressed it built up steam, like a locomotive getting underway.

Payton did this all with a modernist stomp — a decidedly off-kilter rhythm — that recalled, among other things, the retro-futurism of Wynton Marsalis’ Citi Movement ballet score and some of Marsalis’ better Thelonious Monk covers, notably the title cut of his Think of One album, which started with the same kind of coy pointillism as “Cannabis Leaf Rag.” Marsalis has made no accommodation for digital technology in performance, and that pronounced reticence has strongly influenced a generation of jazz players. Perhaps Payton has noted the irony that the period that inspired Citi Movement was a time, in the early 20th-century, when the tempos of composed art music and the images in visual art were grappling with issues of rapid scientific progress, in particular with automation. Think of Piet Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie” and Igor Stravinsky’s ragtime experiments. In any case, Payton — who was one of the many so-called Young Lions of jazz ushered into prominence after Marsalis’ initial success — has shrugged off any vestiges of received technophobia, and Sonic Trance played an inspired set.

Payton’s act of reverence for Miles Davis’ early electric work may run contrary to the retro-jazz refinement in which the young trumpeter emerged. But the adoption of new technology may very well run in the Payton family. On the first Saturday of Jazz Fest this year, April 26, Payton’s father, the bassist and bandleader Walter Payton (not the Chicago Bears running back, though no less imposing a physical presence) led a mid-size ensemble, named the Snapbeans, for a nearly hour-long 3:15pm show. Payton the elder’s ensemble, which performed at the smaller of the two jazz tents, Economy Hall, included a drummer, a trumpeter, a pianist and a second keyboardist on a small, electric setup. When a local radio personality introduced the band midway through their set, he acknowledged the presence of an electric keyboardist in Walter Payton’s ensemble with a sly comment that might serve as a mantra for the inclusion of electronic elements in future Jazz Fests: “He has a few less keys, but more sounds.”

Thanks to Vernon H. Hammond III, of Nicholas Payton's management company, for additional information on Sonic Trance's personnel (along with a copy of its forthcoming album release), which was added to this story on July 9, 2003.
Related links: New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival's website. DJ Logic's website. Galactic's website. Offbeat magazine's website. Nicholas Payton's website.

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