Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter perform at Jazz Fest.
Jazz Fest's weekend was full of rock and pop stars, but the Zatarain's/WWOZ Jazz Tent also featured some legends. Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter's performance also was among the highlights Sunday at the festival.
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...” The congestion had amassed during the last few tunes of the previous set by the Herlin Riley Quintet. But the anticipation made sense: Shorter and Hancock are modern jazz royalty, having played in Miles Davis' band before going on to craft their own notable discographies. Still, anyone seeing Hancock on the schedule and expecting to hear “Watermelon Man” or “Rockit” received a reality check.
Shorter and Hancock entranced an eager crowd with nearly an hour and a half of avant-garde fusion jazz. The audience leaned in, jumped back and stared in awe — often all within the same piece of music. The way Hancock and Shorter initially traded seemingly disparate phrasings 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 16th notes from Hancock's piano.
Halfway through the set, Hancock shifted to his signature Kronos synth and the performance picked up pace. He laid down soaring, space-y voicings to establish the new sound. He added percussive effects and a loop pedal to craft a bold, almost abrasive beat. It 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.
Before beginning the final piece, Hancock and Shorter gave the crowd a break. They took their hands back from the instruments and slowly rose to a round of applause that lasted as long as a song would on many stages. But here, the songs — or explorations —stretched 10, 12 and sometimes 20 minutes and beyond. In spite of the crowd, it felt like sitting in on an intimate and relaxed brainstorming session between the two legends, complete with a moments of irreplicable brilliance.
Nick Jonas didn’t acknowledge it, but some people at the Fair Grounds had to be thinking it: “What’s he doing here?” After all, the young singer’s fame stems from a Disney Channel bump and not his (now lengthy) musical background. But at the Gentilly Stage, he didn’t need theatrics, and his performance answered any questions.
Jonas excited a (younger-looking) crowd by weaving his hits with a few lesser known tracks and some surprising covers. 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 were excelled throughout.
It’s easy to believe a track like Jonas’ hit “Levels” relies on studio production, but his band handled it proficiently for a live audience. The song's bridge and post-chorus sections borrow heavily from funk, and the group made all the unison pops in strong sync as a booming bass drove the action. Jonas’ was able to hit a higher register to rise above it all when needed, and other covers within the set, including Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” confirmed his capabilities.
Though perception still paints Jonas as a tween-sensation, others have escaped that track, including Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake and a handful of other icons. Jonas may or may not get there in the end. But on this day at least, even seemingly reluctant parents in the crowd appeared to acknowledge that the set was fun.
From a distance, it may have looked like Devo had taken the stage, but it was New Orleans' own Imagination Movers in their signature jumpsuits. The band may look like the new-wave legends, but it sounds like a ’90s alt-rock band and sings about itching for summertime or the joy in growing up. Jazz Fest is kid-friendly but the Movers were entertaining crowds on the Gentilly Stage. The group goes through the normal interactions with the crowd, which is as likely to hear “This a new single off our new album” as “Do we have any moms in the audience?”
Cuban percussionist Alexey Marti largely manned the bongos for Estrella Banda, and a few of his solos towards the end of the performance easily qualified as Jazz Fest highlights Sunday. His technical prowess comes across clearly in the pace and clarity of his drum strokes, as his rolls unexpectedly reach and surpass the tempo and crispness of a marching snare drummer. But his real genius lies in how he can coax multiple timbres from the deceptively simple pair of bongos — who knew melody might be possible on those things?
There was competition from Nick Jonas (“Purple Rain,” “Superstition”) and Better Than Ezra (Sublime’s “What I Got” and The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face”), but Royal Teeth may have delivered the best cover of the day with “Under Pressure” as David Bowie-tribute. Gary Larsen and Nora Patterson aptly filled in for Bowie and Freddie Mercury to provide the song’s nuances during a loyal rendition.
The cover showed another side for this young Louisiana band. Patterson can come across like Heart’s Ann Wilson or Metric’s Emily Haines in that her voice seems to have effortless heft as it rises above full instrumentation (as on a track like “Honey” or the new “Kids Conspire”). And though audiences can catch the group at venues as small as Gasa Gasa, the band comes across as tailor-made for the festival stages.
Locals know Little Freddie King qualifies as a treasure, and he reaffirmed this during an early set in the Blues Tent. The consummate performer crowed like a rooster during “Chicken Dance” and ended the song with his signature leg waggle. King traded phrases with his bassist and wailed as strongly as his guitar playing when he took the mic in the second half of the set. King’s set focused on interplay with other band members. With his guitar, he’d trade melody with the harmonica, pass rhythm back and forth with the bass and borrow phrasings from his vocals — sneaking in passages that brought to mind famous blues tunes like “Fried Green Tomatoes” or Hendrix’s “Who Knows?”