I knew I wanted to have a seat in the Jazz tent for Ornette Coleman’s headlining set, but the question was how far in advance I’d need to squat there to manage it, because there were a few other acts scattered around the other stages that we wanted to see as well, earlier in the day.
For instance, we headed to the small Lagniappe stage (set up nowadays in the winner’s circle inside the grandstand) on arrival to hear John Fohl‘s solo acoustic guitar set. Fohl is a much in demand sideman in New Orleans these days. Among his gigs is the current lead guitar seat in Dr. John’s touring band. He played a Professor Longhair instrumental, with the classic New Orleans second-line stride boogie-woogie ragtime transposed to the fretboard.
He has a good voice, reminds me a bit of Nils Lofgren solo… a new tune called “You Told Me To” … his voice is now reminding me of John Prine (later b says she detects a Bonnie Raitt influence)… then comes his arrangement of James Booker’s version of “Sunny Side of the Street.”
This one guy in the audience had a bitchin’ DNA tattoo:
large iced cafeé au lait
b wants to get a picture of me wearing my pornOrchestra t-shirt (notice the powdered sugar from the beignets visible on my front):
That shirt got little gasps and chuckles all day.
We heard Los Calientes in passing from the Congo Square stage, as we found our way to a shady spot, surrounded by sounds from several stages, Louisiana folk life demonstrations (fishnet-making and casting). B admires the rough-hewn benches and goes to find out who makes them. It turns out they are made by the festival’s crafts crew.
large crawfish sausage po’boy, to share (with mayo and creole mustard)
large unsweetened rosemint tea
We enjoyed the small crawfish sausage (boudin-style) so much the other day that we decided to split a big one today – b wanted to get a picture of that too:
…still lazing in the shade of the big tree, listening to the end of D.L. Menard & the Louisiana Aces and the beginning of Sean Ardoin -n- Zydekool (both from the Fais Do-Do stage), b has me take a picture of her wearing her Save the Bay t-shirt, but the picture doesn’t come out all that great. Plus it was never going to top the one taken at macchu pichu (sp?).
There are no good postcards this year, including in the bookstore tent. Several parades go by (they schedule about five or six marching-band parades daily, and the staging area is not from where we are hanging out).
Following the parade, b gets this picture of women all in yellow (check out the shoes):
Later, in the next parade, I snap some pictures of stiltwalkers:
We pass a strange Economy Hall version of the Chris Owens revue (she is an ancient French Quarter attraction) en route to Lagniappe for Hot Club of New Orleans, young guys playing the Stephane Grapelli/Django Reinhardt repertoire of “hot jazz” as made popular by the Hot Club of Paris in the 20s and 30s.
They play at least one Ellington tune, and “Just One of Those Things.” I have to leave before they’re done to secure seats for us in the Jazz tent in time for Ellis Marsalis, who’ll be preceding Ornette. (The local Gambit weekly or Offbeat music magazine had mentioned that Ellis and Alvin Batiste once trekked to Los Angeles to meet and hang around and play with Ornette when he was working out his free-jazz theories later referred to as “harmolodics” so we kind of expected some sitting-in to occur).
I find decent seats with good sightlines stage right (the sound’s pretty good everywhere, but it helps to be on the piano side if you want to hear the piano loud and clear). Just as Ellis (with a sax, bass, and son Jason on drums) starts to play, b appears with softshell crab po’boy (what else?) and yet another large unsweetened rosemint tea. He sounds as spry as ever on the keys:
Three or four songs in they launch into “My Favorite Things” and Alvin Batiste sits in on clarinet:
Then, for a while, Ellis turns his stage over to three high-school kids from Indiana, Pennsylvania whom he met at a workshop there (he’d told them to come down to New Orleans and they’d be welcome). They play sax, bass, and drums and do a few standards and a few originals. When Ellis retakes the stage, he says he is often asked about the future of jazz and he tells us we have just heard it for ourselves. Honestly, the audience is relieved that Ellis’s “real band” has another 20 minutes to play.
Ellis mentions a Batiste composition called “Cochise” that was based on Cherokee harmonies, and then invites him up to lead the band through another song, “Spy Boy.” (Ellis’s sax player – Larry Gomez? – is a real find; he has great tone on both tenor and alto saxes. On Spy Boy he plays tenor and Alvin plays clarinet.)
The anticipation builds as the time for Coleman’s set to start passes. Kidd Jordan comes out to announce the band and kill a little time onstage. He tells us we are in for the music of a lifetime, and reminds us that Ornette is a true innovator, and influential original, whose free style of jazz guarantees more than usual that the improvisations we will hear will never have been played before and may never be played the same way again.
I fight my way to the front of the stage, where the ground is covered with people sitting several rows deep, some of whom are yelling for the photographers to sit down and get out of their way, even though the music hasn’t started yet. I scrape my knuckles, rubbing sand and grit into the open cuts before I even notice them, probably trying to keep my balance while squatting in the smallest space possibe. I still have scab on my knuckles and I’m writing this three days later. When I got back to my seat I felt the sting and throb in my hand, and it was as if I’d literally had to fight for my pictures.
Ornette has a shy, beatific presence, and the photographers all started clicking and winding away as soon as he appeared in his beautiful Thai silk suit. I think this picture of him really captures his unassuming manner:
A European, possibly German, begged me to get out of his line of sight. I reminded him that photographers were permitted to take pictures during the first song (only) of the set. He moaned, “But that first song will last 50 minutes!” I waited until the band (Ornette, a stand-up bass player, and his son Denardo on drums) got set and Coleman put the ‘phone to his lips, and then I took a bunch of shots of him playing. Many came out with photographers’ heads taking up most of the foreground. A few came out OK:
Then I was able to retreat to my seat (by then we had move to a more central position about five rows back from the front) and just relax as the music unfolded all around me. Coleman’s style is exquisitely melodic. It just doesn’t involve repetition or soloing over chords. The bass player took solo turns, plucking (and sometimes bowing) often very high up on the fretboard (that is, physically, very low on the fretboard, where the notes get higher). He was fantastic. Denardo got to take one solo near the end and delivered a very tasteful turn.
It’s unusual to let any act go past 7 pm at Fest, but Ornette was permitted to play until 7:12, as he brought Ellis and Alvin out for his final number. First he spoke about how touched he had been when Marsalis and Batiste had showed up on his doorstep in L.A. those many years ago to tell him that they got what he was doing and wanted to see him and talk about it and play together. They lived with him for a while at the time.
Ornette briefly blowed his trumpet and even more briefly scratched on his violin.
In that final song, the two old timers really stretched out, showing that they fully understood harmolodics, soloing inventively, with beautiful dynamics and relentless invention. Then Ornette played they head of the song and the show was over. The crowd gave him, his band, and his guests a thunderous standing ovation.