Nicholas Payton performs at Jazz Fest.
Even the most strident Jazz Fest supporter would admit seeing legends can be a mixed bag. Last year, Elton John proved every bit the showman and pianist, but his high register had long faded and that changed songs like “Levon.” Last weekend, Van Morrison’s performance came across differently depending on who you asked.
But while Paul Simon has visibly aged, his abilities haven’t. During an 90-minute set, he remained every bit the musician of memory. Simon never backed away from an iconic musical snippet, and he immersed himself in the set even when away from the mic. Simon frequently turned to conduct his band, calling for phrasings or instruments to come to the forefront. A subdued whistling verse in “Me and Julio” aside, Simon strummed the well-knows riffs, gracefully handled high note choruses like in “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and sustained in-sync multipart harmonies including an acapella opening to “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.”
Even if the ability persists, song choice can also undo the experience of seeing an all-time great. (Anyone see Neil Young while he peddled his green planet-themed Greendale?) Simon avoided these pitfalls too. His setlist doubled as a greatest hits, encompassing everything from A-level B-sides like “Duncan” and “The Boy In The Bubble” to era-defining songs like “You Can Call Me Al” and “The Boxer.”
Even detours from the iconic Simon songbook engaged the crowd. Simon snuck in two songs from Stranger to Stranger
, his upcoming album, and they felt shockingly in place. The June 3 release date now feels intriguing . “The Werewolf” in particular had plenty of Simon DNA, with an indigenous drum beat and full choir moments juxtaposed against flourishes of Delta blues’ harmonica and guitar. And after paying his respects to the late Allen Toussaint early in the set — "I'd like to dedicate this show to Allen Toussaint,” Simon said, wearing a large pin of the artist. “We all loved him very much” — he dug out his Louisiana-inspired “That Was Your Mother.” For a musician known by his mastery of folk and his love of African music, Simon demonstrated he can still do a very capable Cajun Zydeco impression.
Aggressively rhythmic and instrumentation-heavy passages like the extended groove section of Simon's “The Cool, Cool River” could just as easily be coming from a modern-day headliner like Vampire Weekend or Yeasayer. Simon somehow proved to be both of a time and timely.
Seeing a full DJ setup front-and-center at the Zatarain's/WWOZ Jazz Tent provided all the visual clues needed to understand Nicholas Payton. A gifted trumpeter, Payton could earn a prime slot at Jazz Fest merely by stuffing a set full of classics and contemporary jazz favorites. But his performance indicated that type of straightforward thinking doesn’t interest him; This artist relishes the contradictory. Payton clearly wants an audience to engage with and reflect upon music beyond the familiar.
Payton’s new Afro-Caribbean Mixtape quintet (with a corresponding album called Textures
due this year) excels in this area. One song features a spoken word sample about assimilation that leads into a traditional PBS-style bit of elevator jazz phrasing. The next starts with a bit of bongo playing that would fit within a Jack Johnson-style jam band, pivots to use electronic key voicings a la Stevie Wonder, and then incorporates Payton moving from piano to trumpet in order to take a solo that seemingly references “Think of Me” from Phantom of the Opera.
In one particular standout track, Payton took to the mic to repeat the sung phrase “Jazz is a four-letter word,” and the soundscape built around these lyrics emphasized the point. Payton started the track by creating a strong repetitive piano rhythm and then used a loop pedal to lock in the pattern before heading to the mic. Additional percussion came from electronic drum voicings, and his DJ (DJ Ladyfingers) mixed in scratching with spoken word samples declaring “We’re thinking about MJ, Aretha… exemplifying the genius of black creativity.” This soundscape would be at home on a release from beatmakers like De La Soul. But then as everything appeared to be crescendoing towards an even more complex whole, Payton took to the trumpet in order to snap the band out of controlled chaos and into a contradictory bit of uptempo contemporary jazz. The song eventually veered back toward a beat-heavy groove as Payton concluded by compelling his audience to repeat the introductory phrase back at the stage.
Towards the end of his set, Payton paid homage to his New Orleans home by allowing the band to take a familiar stylistic detour. A second-line style beat reminiscent of “Treme Song” started up, and Payton led a traditional NOLA-brass track that included rhyming references to Tipitina’s and Mandina’s. Payton built a set meant to stay with an audience long after the last note. Many people in attendance will be pondering it until they can get their hands on Textures
Violinist T-Ray performs at Jazz Fest.
T-Ray the violinist eventually had everyone at the Jazz and Heritage Stage moving in his Jazz Fest debut. Electronic violin dabbling in R&B, pop and classical sounds obviously meshes a load of influences, and T-Ray showcased this in his covers. One particularly fascinating back-to-back sequence featured the musician’s Prince adoration — a “Sometimes it Snows in April” rendition complete with a soaring, perfect ’80s-style guitar solo — and his love of French fusion electric violinist Jan-Luc Ponty. T-Ray’s version of “Trans-Love Express” cooked up an uptempo blend of Riverdance and contemporary jazz.
“We need to act like 'he' meant something to us,” Jazmine Sullivan said. While she’d later cover “Adore” by Prince, Sullivan meant Maurice White this time around. The Earth, Wind and Fire frontman died in February. With fellow legends like Prince, David Bowie, and Allen Toussaint all receiving tributes throughout Jazz Fest, it was refreshing for White to have a moment in the spotlight. Sullivan recreated a portion of the “Shining Star + September” cover she performed at BET’s recent special honoring the late pop star, and it had everyone at the Congo Stage reaching for their high registers to sing in unison.