Though the 2006 Playboy Jazz Festival was touted as a gathering of soul brothers for the storm-battered city of New Orleans, only on Sunday did the connection really surface. Elder Edward Babb and the trombone-laden McCollough Sons of Thunder evoked the spirit of N'awlins first (though they hail from Harlem); then, the still-spry Preservation Hall Jazz Band roused the handkerchief-waving crowd right around dinnertime. But ultimately it was the joker in this jazz deck, Elvis Costello — in cahoots with the magnificent producer-songwriter-singer-pianist-catalyst Allen Toussaint — who seized the moment with the most irresistible musical and emotional pull.
Costello/Toussaint project The River in Reverse shouldn't have surprised the mass media as much as it did, for rock stars since the Band have collaborated happily with Toussaint for decades — and Costello seems bent upon collaborating with just about everybody. This live teaming brought out the best in both.
While the sound of their collaboration stayed pretty much on Toussaint's terms, Costello sounded confident, cocky and totally at home in the absolutely distinctive Toussaint horn arrangements and signature Southern funk — as did his band, the Imposters. The lead went back and forth, with Toussaint giving an especially funky push to the vocals on "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further?" and Costello resurrecting a tune that Toussaint did for Lee Dorsey long ago, "Freedom for the Stallion," that fit the tone of their post-Katrina agenda.
Even an old Costello calling card, "Watching the Detectives," was perfectly translated by Toussaint — and Costello gave Toussaint's "Yes We Can Can" a jolt of his urgency. That one got this jazz party jiggling in the aisles.
Indeed, Costello and Toussaint were riding a wave of energy at the fest that had been building for hours. McCoy Tyner managed to follow the Preservation Hall party with a splendid idea — teaming his hard-driving augmented trio with the dynamic dancing of nine members of Lula Washington's Dance Theater. The dancers galvanized Tyner, and he in turn urged them on with ever-cresting rhythmic movement Latinized by conguero Kevin Ricard. Alas, the bloated sound was awful — the piano was overamped, and one couldn't hear the bass. Do Playboy's engineers ever listen to the sonic garbage coming out of their soundboard?