Gumbo is the operative cliché for New Orleans music — but gumbo is a dish in which ingredients blend. You can find musical through-lines at JazzFest if you try — the five-beat clave rhythm that seems to run through second-line parade rhythms and Afro-Cuban dance bands and even into bounce. Or the blues. But the festival — whose mandate has in the past loosely covered various forms of Southern roots and jazz — this year encompassed Dr. John and Bon Jovi, the New Leviathan Foxtrot Orchestra and Jeff Beck, Irma Thomas and Cyndi Lauper.
Speaking of Jeff Beck: somebody please guide me to his definitive recording, because his appeal has eluded me for 40 years. In the short section of him I caught at JazzFest, he played the Beatles' "A Day in the Life" as a solo guitar piece, replete with "backwards" crescendo, and then, uh, "Nessun dorma." Yes, points for degree of difficulty, but in the end these performances seemed like nothing more than elaborate parlor tricks.
Back on the Lagniappe Stage in the paddock, former Bad Liver Danny Barnes frailed on his "barnjo" — a self-created combination of banjo and electric guitar that looked and acted a lot like an electric guitar. Barnes's delicate grooves of simultaneous bass and lead lines (augmented only by a trap drummer) conjured worlds more music than Beck's whammy bar. It helped that he sang poetic countrified ditties about crappy one-horse towns and love gone bad, fashioning resonant, metaphors from linear, chordless details: "She drained that crankcase and rotated those tires."
To pay Beck his due, part of the appeal of jazz itself is its look-no-hands virtuosity. Of which there was plenty to go around at JazzFest. The Israeli-born reed player Anat Cohen had a couple of gigs on the Fair Grounds. I caught her more "trad" incarnation at the Economy Hall tent. Here were liquid runs on clarinet and soprano sax that boasted heft and dexterity in every register. Maybe the difference was in the way she shaped her lines, accelerating and decelerating. Or maybe it was the historical provenance of the tunes: Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz," Django Reinhardt's "Nuages." Call it old-fashioned, it was music — like Freedia's — that was about something.
That history was also in the performances of gospel singer Jo "Cool" Davis with special guest James "Sugar Boy" Crawford. In 1954, Crawford wrote and recorded "Jock-A-Mo," the transformed Mardi Gras Indian chant better known as "Iko Iko." Crawford left R&B long ago for the church, and here he was, building the most death-drenched "Amazing Grace" I'd ever heard.
History was also in Indian "gangs" like the Creole Wild West, "the first Indian tribe, and the oldest," as Big Chief Walter Cook reminded the audience at the Heritage Stage. And there was French-Cajun history in the multi-generational appearances by members of the Savoy family, from progenitors Mark and Ann to sons Joel and Wilson, the latter of whom leads "Cajun-country" band the Pine Leaf Boys.