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Who got da funk?
New Orleans delivers the beat

Most pop-music fans likely couldnít come up with a working definition for funk ó they just know it when their butts start moving to it. You could date it back to when James met Bootsy, but that doesnít 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 ó an excuse, really ó for a slew of surrounding club activities, mega-concerts, and mini-festivals. If all the music in town proper isnít enough to tempt you, thereís 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 isnít the amount of music but the variety thatís daunting, especially in our demographically obsessed market culture, where specific categories of people are expected to like only specific types of music. This yearís 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 Wilsonís 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 WWOZís 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 íní 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 Armstrongís swinging note placement in the rhythmic flow was so long ago absorbed into the pop mainstream that now itís 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 wasnít jazz ó 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 Crouchís attempt to mimic pre-Louis pop vocals in Ken Burnsís Jazz, then NLOFO leader George Schmidtís charming four-square rendition of "Oh, You Beautiful Doll" ó with lovely four-square orchestral accompaniment ó made everything abundantly clear. It wasnít bad ó 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 ó 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 Ballís set on Piano Night didnít really take off until she shifted into the shuffle on "Thatís Enough of That Stuff," her tribute to New Orleans music.

Not that there arenít other rhythms to be had at Jazzfest. Iím not sure youíd 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, donít 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 ó doesnít anyone in funk play good olí 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 ó rotund, in a gray polo shirt, baggy below-the-knee denim shorts, and what looked to be size 15 white running shoes ó was a great showman, and he had no trouble handling John Legendís R&B hit ballad "Take It Slow."

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Issue Date: May 6 - 12, 2005
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