At first, the glowing keyboard swells coming out the Blues Tent two hours into the final day of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell sounded like the ethereal opening section of Allen Toussaint's "Southern Nights." But after zydeco crooner Terrance Simien dedicated the song to Toussaint, B.B. King and Prince, he unleashed a long, proud, "ma di cu de fiyo," and transformed the music into the reverent Mardi Gras Indian prayer song, "Indian Red."
The spirits of Simien's metaphoric Big Chiefs, each of whom died in the year since the last Jazz Fest, loomed so large at the 2016 festival that the whole thing often felt like an extended memorial celebration. Musical tributes popped up on all 12 stages over the course of the sprawling, seven-day affair, which kicked off April 22, one day after Prince's death, and came to a rain-soaked close May 1. There were visual homages, too, from the massive photo of Toussaint and King that adorned the Blues Tent stage to the Prince symbol that appeared, via skywriter, above the Congo Square stage during Maxwell's gospel-inspired performance. Elvis Costello wore a pin featuring Toussaint's smiling face on the purple beret he wore for set with the Imposters. The next day, Paul Simon accessorized his onstage attire with the same pin.
From the festival's sunny first weekend through its thunderstorm drenched second, "Purple Rain" was ubiquitous, with My Morning Jacket, a purple robe-clad Rockin' Dopsie, Jr. and the experimental electric string player, T-Ray the Violinist, among others, giving the '80s anthem rock, zydeco and R&B treatments.
Another shout-out to the Purple One came from Janelle Monae, who shared a memory of receiving a call from Prince in which he told her he loved her "jazz voice," then invited her to a seven-hour-long jam session at Paisley Park. She followed that up with "Smile" – a platform for said "jazz voice" — and closed with "Take Me With U" and "Let's Go Crazy."
Terence Blanchard and his E-Collective, meanwhile, opened their Jazz Tent set with Prince's "Diamonds and Pearls," a nice match for the project's synth-heavy vibe and a showcase for guitarist Charles Altura's evocative feel and creative technique. The performance got darker from there, featuring plenty of long, dark horn lines, metal inspired bass and drum exchanges and operatic interludes of new music.
The first major dose of Toussaint nostalgia came during Costello's April 28 performance with the Imposters and Toussaint's former horn section (trombonist Big Sam Williams, Toussaint's former saxophonists Brian "Breeze" Cayolle and Amadee Castenell, and trumpeter, Joe Fox). After running onto the stage to his Revolver tour walk-on music, the 1960s sci-fi track, "Rise Robots Rise," Costello kicked into an an intense "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding?" A string of hits and multiple guitar changes followed before he delved into the Toussaint memories his hat seemed to promise were coming from the beginning.
"When you're in the studio with Allen Toussaint, he doesn't tell you what to play," Costello said. "If he doesn't like what you play, he says … 'Well. What do you think of that?'"
It was a light-hearted introduction to a more serious tune. Recalling the wreckage and strange silence he saw when he met Toussaint here two months after Katrina to record The River in Reverse, Costello said he was struck by Toussaint's ability to remain "gracious" in the face of so much devastation. The experience helped inspire "Ascension Day," a minor-key riff on Professor Longhair's "Tipitina" replete with eerie, post-K imagery, a nod to "St. James Infirmary" and a hint of Christian calendar-fueled hope.
When he'd played the idea for Toussaint, Costello remembered, the songwriting legend responded not with "well," but with a more encouraging, "most interesting." Members of the audience laughed and Costello proceeded to perform fiercely phrased versions of that song, "The River In Reverse" and the haunting, "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," from his album Spike, which featured contributions from Toussaint and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
He reprised the song in mellower, acoustic fashion later that night in a surprise appearance at Preservation Hall's Midnight Preserves series.
Storms continued to plague the Fairgrounds Race Course where the festival is staged for the rest of the second weekend, rendering much of the infield an equine-scented mud pit. The worst of it arrived April 30, raining out headliners including Stevie Wonder and Beck, both of whom made impromptu appearances at French Quarter venues that night.
By the time Ashlin Parker's sprawling, hard bop-meets-groove Trumpet Mafia collective hit the Jazz Tent the morning of May 1, most of the lightning, if not the rain, had receded, along with the usual second-weekend crowds. The seemingly diehard-filled crowd was moved to multiple standing ovations when Nicholas Payton took an elegant and flourish-topped solo near the end of the set.
Later at the (much wetter) Gentilly Stage, back-to-back tributes to Toussaint and King earned similar reactions from the throngs of umbrella clutching, poncho clad fans who refused to give up their last day of music.
With Toussaint's longtime backing ensemble holding things down as the house band, a stream of Toussaint's protégés and collaborators performed his hits, one by one. Aaron Neville's fluttering high notes and warm low tones delivered a strong rendition of "Hercules." Joe Krown abdicated his piano bench for Jon Batiste, who opened his punched-up take on "Working In The Coal Mine" with a thunderous, James Booker-esque figure. The three-woman backup singer team ELS performed "Lady Marmalade" followed by a gospel-soaked solo from Erica Falls and a rendition of "Happinesss" that had the crowd singing along. Other special guests included Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt and a nattily dressed Davell Crawford, who ended his boisterous take on "Brickyard Blues" by pulling out a pair of black sandals as the audience alternately cheered, laughed and grew visibly teary-eyed. He held the nod to Toussaint's annual Jazz Fest sandals-and-socks attire up over his head, beaming to more applause.
Hosted by King's band, the B.B. tribute that followed was similarly emotional and star-stuffed. Raitt and Dr. John both returned for separate King-dedicated numbers and Gregory Porter belted out a church-fueled "Let the Good Times Roll." The climax came at the end, as Raitt and Porter — plus Buddy Guy, Elvin Bishop and Walter Wolfman Washington – gave the blues guitar titan a final sendoff with "The Thrill Is Gone." It was a bittersweet, yet a propos finish.