NPR logo The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra: Individual Heat

The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra: Individual Heat

Clarinetist Evan Christopher. Patrick Jarenwattananon/NPR hide caption

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Clarinetist Evan Christopher.

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The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra won a Grammy Award this year for Best Large Ensemble Recording. Perhaps that's why the WWOZ Jazz Tent was packed to overflowing late on Sunday at the Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Then again, front man Irvin Mayfield is a popular guy here in New Orleans. Full of charisma and energy — I refer you to this concert from New Year's Eve — he's a jazz club impresario, leader of multiple bands and an official cultural ambassador for the city. That, and he's also a wildly talented trumpeter, full-toned with plenty of technique.

He's hardly the focal point of the show, however; he writes, organizes, conducts and oversees, meaning that his solo time is relatively limited. He leaves the heavy lifting to his star soloists.

More photos and thoughts, after the jump.

Ed Petersen, framed by Derek Douget's saxophone (left) and Evan Christopher. Patrick Jarenwattananon/NPR hide caption

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Ed Petersen, framed by Derek Douget's saxophone (left) and Evan Christopher.

Patrick Jarenwattananon/NPR

Ed Alexander is a Chicago transplant, a tenor saxophonist as furiously torrid as they come; he handles a good deal of blowing for the group. Trombonist Ron Westray stood up for "Somebody Forgot To Turn The Faucet Off," blowing whirlwinds around the tune's central repetitive figure. There were features for saxophonists Derek Douget and Aaron Fletcher, and an appealing turn for vocalist Johnaye Kendrick, a recent Monk Institute graduate. Finally, Evan Christopher is a clarinetist based in New Orleans, and if you're a professional clarinetist in New Orleans, you're probably well-skilled when it comes to early jazz. Christopher's bag also extends further — "It's a Creole Thing" was essentially his solo feature, and he romped through it.

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Credit Mayfield for writing original compositions where arrangements of warhorses would probably have sufficed. Alternately parade, funk, pre-war swing, Latin and modern jazz, his band's rhythms reflect the multicolored approach to groove in this city. It very much feels like a summation of New Orleans music at large, translated to 13-piece jazz orchestra.

His ensemble passages don't have much dramatic arc — they're mostly built around simple riffs, harmonies, forms and interplay — but with soloists like his, Mayfield doesn't have to do much more than that. (It's an approach more Basie than Ellington, led by a man more Ellington than Basie.) Sometimes individual brilliance leaves you coldly stunned — or worse, unimpressed. But it was warm on Sunday, and the band was hotter: every single feature dug hard, and won wild, enthusiastic applause.

Johnaye Kendrick, backed by Irvin Mayfield (right) and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. Patrick Jarenwattananon/NPR hide caption

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Johnaye Kendrick, backed by Irvin Mayfield (right) and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.

Patrick Jarenwattananon/NPR