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Who got da funk? New Orleans delivers the beat: Stomp #4 Review: BOSTON PHOENIXWho got da funk?
New Orleans delivers the beat
BY JON GARELICK
THE BOMB: at the Ponderosa Stomp, H-Bomb Ferguson's articulation may have been toothless, but his presence was priceless.
STAR POWER: even if you didn't recognize Brenton Wood's name, you probably knew 'The Oogum Boogum Song.
Most pop-music fans likely couldn’t come up with a working definition for funk — they just know it when their butts start moving to it. You could date it back to when James met Bootsy, but that doesn’t account for an album title like Opus de Funk by the peerlessly elegant (and peerlessly funky) jazz vibraphonist Milt Jackson back in 1954. One of the joys of attending the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is that it cuts so many notions of the beat side by side and end over end. And the two-weekend event of daytime concerts on 11 stages at the Fair Grounds Race Course is merely the cornerstone — an excuse, really — for a slew of surrounding club activities, mega-concerts, and mini-festivals. If all the music in town proper isn’t enough to tempt you, there’s the "Larose Family Fun Festival," which invites you to see Jazzfest zydeco act Rosie Ledet in Bayou Laforche, "Just one hour from New Orleans!"
It isn’t the amount of music but the variety that’s daunting, especially in our demographically obsessed market culture, where specific categories of people are expected to like only specific types of music. This year’s Jazzfest (the 36th) was kind of a force feeding of polyglot styles. If you wanted to see Brian Wilson at the big Acura stage, you likely had to cut through the Congo Square stage grounds for a taste of Colombian cumbia-pop heartthrob Juanes. And during pauses in the array of Wilson’s rainbow harmonies, you might not be able to avoid the thump-and-grind of Nelly (yes, that Nelly) two football fields away.
Of the ancillary events in town, local non-profit FM station WWOZ’s annual Monday "Piano Night" fundraiser in the downtown Generations Hall featured such like-minded funk keyboard wizards as Eddie Bo, Dr. John, Marcia Ball, and local über-god Allen Toussaint, the "Hall of Fame" honoree. And at the Mid-City Lanes Rock ’n’ Bowl venue, an anesthesiologist and self-avowed vinyl junkie staged his third annual Ponderosa Stomp (named for a tune by Lazy Lester, after the musician code name for Angola State Prison). The Stomp mostly mixed R&B and rockabilly (including a set featuring original Elvis sidemen Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana) but with side trips to acid-damaged surf-rock noisemonger Link Wray and harmolodic Ornette disciple James "Blood" Ulmer.
There were lessons to be had in such a crush of musical variety. Consider that beat. The "hot" sound of Louis Armstrong’s swinging note placement in the rhythmic flow was so long ago absorbed into the pop mainstream that now it’s hard to recognize what was revolutionary about it. The New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra, playing in the Economy Hall trad-jazz tent, offered a helpful illustration. This wasn’t jazz — it was, as the official Jazzfest program described it, "a 1920s dance orchestra" replete with sailor uniforms and caps and a full string section, including cellos. If you were at all mystified by Stanley Crouch’s attempt to mimic pre-Louis pop vocals in Ken Burns’s Jazz , then NLOFO leader George Schmidt’s charming four-square rendition of "Oh, You Beautiful Doll" — with lovely four-square orchestral accompaniment — made everything abundantly clear. It wasn’t bad — in its own way, it was perfect.
Most New Orleans pop finds its roots in the "second line" of parade brass bands, itself a permutation of the Afro-Cuban clave — that is, the 1-2-3-1-2 five-beat shuffle of the rumba. You could hear that shuffle from any number of brass bands and Mardi Gras Indian gangs on the Fair Grounds the first weekend of Jazzfest (April 22 through 24). You could clap variations on that rhythm along to New Orleans staples like "Junco Partner" and "Big Chief" (the latter of which, along with "Tipitina," gets endless crowd-pleasing treatments during Jazzfest week). Marcia Ball’s set on Piano Night didn’t really take off until she shifted into the shuffle on "That’s Enough of That Stuff," her tribute to New Orleans music.
Not that there aren’t other rhythms to be had at Jazzfest. I’m not sure you’d call the Cajun quintet Balfa Toujours funky, but their waltzes and two-steps were airborne, carried aloft by crisp drums and electric bass, huffing accordion, whining fiddles, acoustic guitars, and the idiomatic chime of a triangle. Leader Christine Balfa and fiddler Courtney Granger sang with that high-lonesome, heart-piercing nasal twang, and it became all the more touching when Balfa translated one of the French lyrics: "Young girls, don’t get married, because when you get married, all your fun will end."
Cajun takes its cue from a mix of old Creole dance forms and C&W; its cousin zydeco mixes that same Creole strain with R&B. Latter-day zydeco bands feature steroidal oomphing bass lines (the festival sported all manner of six-, seven-, and eight-string electric basses — doesn’t anyone in funk play good ol’ Bootsy Collins four-string anymore?), hyperactive rub boards, electric guitars, and killer kick drums. Sean Ardoin, a grandson of Creole musical pioneer Bois Sec Ardoin, sang through a headset (a zydeco first?) as he pumped out rhythms on his accordion. His band Zydekool made switchblade shifts between zydeco two-step and reggae. The leader — rotund, in a gray polo shirt, baggy below-the-knee denim shorts, and what looked to be size 15 white running shoes — was a great showman, and he had no trouble handling John Legend’s R&B hit ballad "Take It Slow."
I knew Legend had struck a nerve when I heard his song played not only by a zydeco band but by a brass band, the Stooges. In New Orleans, the brass bands are street-bred. Their chops can handle tricky jazz arrangements and their second-line rhythms (laid down by drums and tuba) can morph into dancehall raps or straight hip-hop. The Stooges played one song dedicated to a friend, trombonist Joseph "Shotgun" Williams, of the Hot 8 Brass Band, who "was killed by the New Orleans police department" last August. Part of the refrain went: "They have the nerve/To say they protect and serve." The name of the tune was "Why’d You Have To Kill Him?"
The street has always been evident in the music of the city’s many Mardi Gras Indian tribes — gangs who draw their mythology from Indian culture but whose own roots are inner-city turf battles, these days acted out in ritualized performances in elaborate multi-color feathered and beaded suits. At their most "evolved," the Indians are full-fledged rock bands like the Wild Magnolias. But a crew called the Hard Headhunters served it up straight — chanting coded raps like "Shoo Fly" and "Shallow Water" over second-line drums and tambourines. Mardi Gras Indians work frantically to sew their own suits in time for Mardi Gras ("sewed all day and sewed all night," goes one refrain), and the Headhunters’ beadwork was both stunning and explicit. The Indians in these beaded panels are always depicted as dark red, bare-chested and in loin cloths or buckskin pants and feathers. There are sometimes images of hunting or, perhaps, Indians helping slaves escape through that "shallow water" of the swamps. But one Headhunter panel depicted an Indian burning on a funeral pyre, another an Indian spearing a hooded KKK member through the head. And in the most elaborate, a band of Indians had overrun a fort, killing all but the company commander, who was depicted in his peaked cowboy hat and blue uniform at the center of the panel, on one knee aiming a pistol from the open back of a covered wagon. The canvas of the wagon was gray, the uniform bright blue, and the immediate background of the wagon interior bright white, as if a white light were emanating from the wagon and surrounding the soldier in an aura, like an icon.
THE BEAT has evolved through the course of jazz with a kind of centrifugal force, like an expanding galaxy of stars — always growing looser, more elastic. There was plenty of the loose second-line rhythm of ancient New Orleans jazz and Dixieland in the Economy Hall tent. (Clarinettist Tim Laughlin dedicated one tune to Eddie, the long-time leader of the Economy Hall second-liners, as "the funkiest white man in the world.") But the Rob Wagner Trio in the WWOZ Jazz Tent, fronted by the young saxophonist, dipped into free jazz, grounding their rhythms in ostinato bass patterns and triple meters. And in between were the hard-bop rhythms of the Jazz Messengers Legacy Band. The most ballyhooed event at Saturday’s show was the reunion of the original Meters, predecessors of the Neville Brothers, creators of "Cissy Strut" and innumerable grooves sampled by hip-hoppers. ("They brought rock to funk, they brought funk to rock," announced Jazzfest producer Quint Davis.) Meanwhile, at the Congo stage, Meters descendants the Roots married rap to live-band rhythms and Zeppelin’s "Whole Lotta Love."
THE PONDEROSA STOMP is the brainchild of Dr. Ira Padnos, who’s identified by the Times-Picayune as an assistant professor of anesthesiology at LSU Medical Center. But, introducing acts at Mid-City Lanes on Tuesday night, youthful, with a fez crushing his curls, he could have passed for a BU grad student. The raison d’ętre for the Stomp is for Padnos to gather the R&B, rockabilly, and rock-and-roll heroes of his record collection for a live jukebox of half-hour performances during marathon sessions over two evenings. It’s pretty loose as to style (thus "Blood" Ulmer and, last year, the Sun Ra Arkestra), but for the most part, tight young backing bands support elder one-hit or near-hit legends like H-Bomb Ferguson ("Good Lovin’," and "Midnight Ramblin’ Tonight"; known for his "Thelonious Monk–style blues piano"), Dale Hawkins ("Suzy Q"), and Wray. Ferguson and Hawkins were more or less out of control with their singing but ingratiating in their enthusiasm and gratitude, and Ferguson, in a crushed red velvet shirt and frosted wig, was resplendent as he delivered tunes with what seemed to be (literally) toothless articulation. Stardom hasn’t been a straight road for a lot of these guys, but Padnos has given them a chance to shine once more. And for someone born in 1929, H-Bomb still knows how to rock.
Brenton Wood (born Alfred Smith in Shreveport; "The Oogum Boogum Song," "Gimme Little Sign," "Baby You Got It"), however, was in full command. Natty at 63 in a genuine zoot suit — wide trousers, long coat, broad-brimmed hat and all — he sang his light soul in front of a band who included indie-pop hero Alex Chilton on guitar with a falsetto so pure it didn’t even sound like a falsetto. It was funky, and it was a joy. .