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New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival: Henry Butler, Donald Harrison, Wynton Marsalis and more

April 25, 2009 | 11:53 am

The older he gets, the more New Orleans pianist Henry Butler resembles Professor Longhair. When Butler, now 59, performed Friday, the opening day of this year's New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, his tall, lanky frame, bald, narrow head and wraparound sunglasses gave him the gaunt look of Henry Roeland Byrd, the musician immortalized as Professor Longhair (or Fess). And when Butler started rattling his Roland electric piano with two-fisted chords, adding the severe form of syncopation that gives New Orleans its signature second-line rhythms, the connection between the city’s two native-son pianists was complete.

Byrd died in 1980 at age 61, but he hovers over the city and its premier festival like a guardian angel. A bas-relief of him at the piano sits atop the festival's biggest stage, which old-timers still refer to as “the Fess Stage” rather than its current corporate name.

The city’s most famous nightclub, Tipitina’s, is named after Byrd’s most famous song. His tunes are still heard in the city’s clubs and on the dozen stages scattered inside and outside the racetrack where Jazzfest is held on the New Orleans Fairgrounds. Even more than his songs, Professor Longhair’s piano licks -- a dizzying combination of American boogie-woogie, Cuban rumba and New Orleans blues -- are echoed whenever a musician begins pushing and pulling at the time with that hometown flavor.

Nowadays, no one plays those licks better than Butler, a Katrina refugee living in Denver.

Wearing a baggy purple suit with purple vinyl sleeves and a lavender shirt, the blind pianist charged with gusto into “Jump to the Music,” his rewrite of Big Joe Turner's “Flip, Flop and Fly," and then into the New Orleans standard “Iko Iko." His enormous hands stretched to add unexpected notes to his chord clusters, even as he was slapping at his keyboard as if it were a conga drum. For even as Butler was turning blues rhythms inside out, he was doing the same to the harmonies.

This was especially obvious three songs later when he played a long, unaccompanied introduction. No longer worrying about his rhythm section keeping track of the chord changes, Butler started substituting chords for the usual blues changes, as if he were Art Tatum or Keith Jarrett. Here were chords that Byrd never touched; here was evidence that Butler was not merely preserving a tradition but pushing it into new territory. That’s what keeps New Orleans music so interesting: The musicians there treat tradition not as a blueprint but as a theme for variation, much as jazz players improvise on a show-tune melody. Not for nothing is the festival called Jazz and Heritage.

And when Butler finally pulled out of his long, solo excursion through unorthodox chords and invited his rhythm section back into the song, what did the song turn out to be? Professor Longhair’s “Go to the Mardi Gras." Butler segued from the jazz cadenza into the jaunty carnival sing-along as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Something similar happened later that afternoon when Donald Harrison and the Spirit of Congo Square took the stage in the festival’s Jazz Tent. Harrison, who once replaced Branford Marsalis in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, blew more than one alto-sax solo that demonstrated the fluidity and daring of the best bebop and post-bop jazz. But on his song “Hu-Ta-Nay,” when he laid his horn on the B-3 organ (later to be played by special guest Lonnie Liston Smith), Harrison went into a chant about Congo Square, the New Orleans park where the local slaves were allowed to play their drums.

The chant and its accompanying groove -- supplied by Bill Summers of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters -- suggested hip-hop, but it actually had its roots in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indian tradition. Local African Americans, including Harrison and his father, have long dressed up in extravagantly feathered and beaded Indian costumes to prowl the city's streets, shaking their plumage and bellowing their boasts.

The second-line rhythms created by the hand percussion in those parades suggest Professor Longhair as much as Lil’ Wayne or Blakey. By making all those connections, Harrison provided a new variation on a traditional theme, much as Butler had earlier.

Wynton Marsalis, also a New Orleans native and Blakey alumnus, ended the day with an unusually long, two-hour set on the festival’s Congo Square stage. Even with less hair and more bulk than in his younger days, Marsalis still looked dashing in his tailored gray suit. He conducted not only the 15-member Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra but also Odadaa, the Ghanaian percussion ensemble led by Yacub Addy.

When the West Africans started playing duplet patterns against triplets on their cowbells, hand drums and balaphon, they suggested the ultimate source of Professor Longhair’s second-line rhythms. And when Marsalis built elegant jazz harmonies on top, pitting five flutes against muted trombones or wailing clarinet against four trumpets, he was merely improvising on tradition as his city has all along.

-- Geoffrey Himes

Photo: Henry Butler. Credit: EPA