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Astral Days

bonerama_3604_big.gif I’m on my annual pilgrimage to New Orleans, the big not-so-easy-anymore, checking out the first weekend of the Jazz and Heritage Festival, or JazzFest for short. Fest is an orgy of music, food, and crafts, not necessarily in that order. Every year we try to revisit some old favorites, check out a few ringers, and stumble over some music we’d never heard before. Last year’s discovery was twisted Louisiana piano perfessor Bobby Lounge, who we’ll be seeing again tomorrow. This year so far I’ve fallen in love with Bonerama (not what it sounds like) and have two more days to discover something totally fresh.

Between the soft-shell crab and cochon du lait po-boys, rosemint ice tea, popcorn shrimp, and beignets today we heard jamming’ string-band music from Jeff and Vida and caught snippets of Zachary Richard, Trombone Shorty, Soulive, and Percy Sledge. We ended the day by shoving our way to near the front of the Acura stage (where they’ve finally outlawed those obnoxious frat/sorority style easy-chair encampments), to watch Van Morrison prove he’s still got it with a country-ish (dobro and fiddle included) band offering five-party backing harmonies. Dr. John came out to sit in on a Fats Domino tune but it looked like they had woken him up from a nap or a nod, because he tootled on the piano just a little bit and interspersed a little response to Van’s call in his inimitable “Y’at” drawl. Van opened with “Moondance” and took his time with “Cleaning Windows” and country classics like “There Stands the Glass” before my arthritic knee threatened to kill me if I didn’t hobble off the green and find some place to rest.

A friend of mine once said that you don’t judge Jazz Fest by the music you saw but by the music you had to miss to see the music you saw. (With 11 stages, covering gospel, blues, jazz, zydeco, soul and more, there’s a lot to miss.) This day our misses included Lucinda Williams,T-Bone Burnett, George Porter of the Meter, and countless others.

Bonerama, as I mentioned, was a surprising treat. I had heard snippets of their sound in passing before but never really got them. They are a seven-piece band featuring four trombones, a sousaphone, an electric guitar and a drums. The drummer plays funky second-line style recognizable to any fan of New Orleans music. The guitarist plays a lot of rhythm but occasionally steps out a la Galactic or Charlie Hunter, playing slinky leads through a Leslie speaker (or perhaps an effects box to that effect). The sousaphone holds down the bottom, of course, and the ‘bones play sometimes in unison and sometimes in wickedly clever arrangements. The whole thing is some kind of bastard child of the brass band revival kicked off by the Dirty Dozen and the post-Meters funk ‘n’ roll that comes out of Tulane and UNO in waves every couple of years.

The lead trombonist, Mark Mullins, has a great set of pipes as well, singing an entirely credible lead vocal on “Helter Skelter” but his signature contribution to the act is a style of trombone soloing that blindfolded you would swear was someone shredding on electric guitar, wah wah, distortion, wammy, and delay sound included. Their cover of Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean” featured his trombone as the lead vocal line and the primary solo instrument. Their cover of Billy Lee’s “Hey Now Baby” evoked numerous N’awlins nights: greasy, sexy, and dancing the funky butt, but it wasn’t just about the covers. Their third LP is out just now. Wait, did I say LP? I meant CD, of course, and their originals are as catchy and delicious as the more familiar material, but I would forgive them the covers even if I wasn’t a sucker for “repertory” because the novelty (and I mean that in the best sense) of their band’s composition shed revelations on their well-chosen cover material.

In the end, though, the winner of the day for me was longtime unsung local jazz heroes, Astral Project. (An aside, I have to admit that even after hearing these guys most of the 15 or so times I’ve been to Fest, it was only last year that I got the joke of their name. Honestly I’d just chalked it up as a ’70s era “Cosmic Unit” or “Origen”-type name.)

Astral Project is anchored by legendary and always-in-demand drummer Johnny Vidacovich. The other half of the rhythm section is elastic stand-up bass player James Singleton. The two lead voices are guitarist Steve Masakowski and tenor saxomophonist Tony Dagradi. In fact at the end of their life-affirming hour set in the middle of the day in the Jazz Tent, I turned to my fiancée and noted how the guitar and sax playing the song’s head in unison made my heart sing. It sounded like two horns for one thing, and it made the ceaselessly yakking underaged biddy in the row behind me bother me no more.

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The centerpiece of the set featured Singleton leading the band through a rousing take on his “Legend of Cowboy Bill” (probably not the lonesome dude from the Velvets’ Loaded), taking a solo way high up (meaning physically way down low) on his fat stand-up bass strings.

Tiny children with maracas ran up the aisles grooving to this sound. I mean, I’m sure when these guys started out their noise was on the fringe. And it’s not that their approach to the music has changed but that our ears have changed. They haven’t become mainstream, but we’ve all learned how to hear them and what was once difficult now sounds mellifluous. Now they sound just so right, the way bop does. When they play an original composition, one you’ve never heard before, you instantly feel like it must be a standard or something you heard somebody play at Birdland twenty years ago. And not because it’s derivative, but because it’s authoritative. This is what fusion always wanted to be. Harmonically interesting and rhythmically in-the-pocket jazz with the get-up-and-go of great rock ‘n’ roll. You want to dance to it but you’re glued to your seat, riding a tension-and-release roller coaster up Mount Tonic. (Note: a recording of this set will be available online sometime later this week.)

All I can say is that when I entered the Jazz Tent I was hot, sweaty, and cranky (and holding a softshell crab dressed in horseradish and hot sauce on a French roll in my hand) and when we left I was cool, collected, empty-handed, and ready to face the world, or at least two more days of the first weekend of Fest, 2007.

From → Cut-Out Bin

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