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New Orleans Jazz Orchestra heats up DPAC

Michelle Fordice | Monday, February 5, 2007

From the moment the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra walked on stage Saturday and bridged the tuning of its instruments straight into a melody, the group filled the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center’s Leighton Concert Hall with an energy it doesn’t often see. Flexible and stirring, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra is not one to miss.

Director, composer and trumpeter Irvin Mayfield established the non-profit orchestra in 2002. The group presents the strong tradition of music in New Orleans culture, mixing jazz, blues, swing and spirituals. It has performed in arenas like Ravinia, Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Congressional Black Caucus. It also symbolically re-opened New Orleans with the first major cultural event after Katrina – a performance of “All the Saints” at Christ Church Cathedral. The 16-piece orchestra tours the country not only as a talented musical ensemble but also as an ambassador from the Katrina-devastated city.

Mayfield is a Grammy nominee and a member of Los Hombres Calientes, which was nominated for two Billboard Latin Music awards and one Grammy and won a Billboard for “Volume One.” He is also highly involved in New Orleans politics and culture, serving as the city’s cultural ambassador.

The players are as good performers as they are musicians. On Saturday night, they joked with each other and the audience throughout the concert. Mayfield treated his introductions to each song as a personal conversation: explaining the context of the songs, introducing his uncle who sat in the audience and “dedicating” the performance to getting back at the Bears for beating the New Orleans Saints in January. The audience tasted every instrument as each musician took his solos. During these, the fellow players gave murmurs of approval and whooped their appreciation, displaying their own love of the music.

The orchestra’s first song after the opening, “Second Line” from Duke Ellington’s suite dedicated to New Orleans, was cool and fun, featuring the clarinet and trombone.

Mayfield composed the next song, “Higher Ground,” which was inspired by a statement by a 911 operator during Hurricane Katrina. The song was meant to encourage not just the people of New Orleans, but all Americans, Mayfield said, to rebuild one of the country’s treasures. “Higher Ground” began strong and subdued with bassist David Pulphus and rose from there as the rest of the orchestra gradually joined in with both instruments and voices, humming and singing, “People in the city better get to higher ground.” As the music wandered away and then came back to its center it soared to greater heights.

In “It’s a Creole Thing, You Wouldn’t Understand,” Evan Christopher “put the sexy back in the clarinet,” according to Mayfield. Christopher displayed the fluidity and mystery of the instrument.

“Someone Forgot to Turn the Faucet Off, Probably Steve” intertwined a feeling of overflowing tension and urgency with an oblivious fun, illustrating how as a child Mayfield left the faucet running for five hours while his mother was away.

Mayfield introduced “Ballad of the Hot Long Night” by saying that jazz ballads are one of the most meaningful mediums for love songs because they embody “love that words can’t express.” The softly sensual song led by pianist Victor Atkins was beautiful.

The vocalist on “Route 66” twisted and turned through the piece and passed it on to a wonderful small ensemble featuring the clarinet, trombone and trumpet.

The orchestra concluded with “May His Soul Rest in Peace,” composed by Mayfield in memory of his father and the other victims of Hurricane Katrina. The song was both mournful and filled with hope. Mayfield’s trumpet rose above the rest of the surging orchestra, moving the audience and laying the souls to rest.

It was also wonderful to hear the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra try its album, “Strange Fruits,” which features the Dillard University Choir. “Strange Fruits” builds on Billie Holiday’s song by the same name – which protested the prevalent lynching of African Americans in the South during the early 20th century – expanding it into a nine-movement jazz oratorio. Like its concert, the CD covers a wide range of jazz sound.

The concert featuring the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra also marked a new experiment between the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center and Legends of Notre Dame. Audience members had a chance to purchase the first dinner and performance packages offered by the DPAC, which provided savings on both.

Overall, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra provided a wonderful evening of jazz. It strove to connect with its audience while incorporating truth into its music and personality into its playing.