When the James Rivers Movement opens the second weekend of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on Fri., May 1, at Zatarain’s WWOZ Jazz Tent, it’s a safe bet that if Clint Eastwood is in town he’ll be backstage, as cool as the other side of the pillow.
No, fans, I have no scoop on Eastwood’s calendar; but on one of Eastwood’s recent trips to the “holy city where jazz began,” the drummer Kerry Brown, whose side yard Uptown overlooks Rivers’ backyard, came on his porch and saw a dude in sunglasses with his legs stretched in his neighbor’s chair basking in afternoon light. He looked just like Clint Eastwood. Brown knew that his saxophonist-from-the-stratosphere neighbor had played in several Eastwood films. A few days later Kerry saw James. Hey, was that Eastwood?
“Yeah,” smiled Rivers, “Clint comes by from time to time.”
The James Rivers Movement has come far since he packed Mel’s Lounge, a rocking little place in Marigny where he often led people out of the club in a second line and brought them back in time for the break. Mel’s is gone. A man of leadership and Hollywood connections, James Rivers plays on.
Sat., May 2, has one of those competitive line-ups to make the jazz aficionado wince. Dr. Michael White, the clarinet maestro and composer, recently released a stellar work, New Orleans Brass Bands: Through the Streets of the City (Smithsonian Folkways). He will probably play songs from this album during his performance with the Liberty Brass Band and singer Thais Clark in the Economy Hall tent at 2:15.
White’s set begins 10 minutes after Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers start cooking at the Congo Square stage. It is hard to imagine two more dissimilar specimens of the jazz life – White, a cerebral professor at Xavier with a mind ever roaming on the origins, the “why” of New Orleans Style, versus Ruffins, the bravura trumpeter whose earthy populism pervades his latest CD on Basin Street Records #imsoneworleans.
The title cut, “I’m So New Orleans” is broken into two tracks, the first and last. That final cut is a rolling stream of consciousness paean to his lower 9th Ward roots. “I’m so New Orleans, I swam in Industrial Canal!’” He continues by recounting how he speared frogs from another canal, and cooked them and ate them with his daddy on the spot.
Ruffins is far from a polished stylist, but he packs his work with passion and a comic persona akin to a more restrained Ernie K-Doe, such that it’s easy to understand his cult following. And on his new CD on the track “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” he features a vocalist in her recording debut, his daughter Kaylin Orleans Ruffins. This girl is 8 and she has a set of pipes; her voice is tender in the gentle moments of that fabled song but tends to shout in climbing the octaves, which is something a producer and voice coach can smooth out. Kaylin, congratulations; the world awaits you.
The mother of all Jazz Fest sets, for my money, is at 4:30 in the Blues Tent on Saturday, when Aaron Neville performs. He wears a St. Jude medal as an earring in honor of the saint for hopeless cases, having said publicly that novenas at the Rampart Street shrine helped him beat a drug addiction years ago.
Neville’s 1989 collaboration with Linda Rondstat on the CD Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind had two Grammy-winning cuts “Don’t Know Much” and “All My Life.”
Parkinson’s disease ended Ronsdstat’s career. Of Aaron Neville, she told Parade Magazine: “He’s one of the dearest people ever to me. I talk to him a lot. He’s one of the great voices of pop music, I think … He’s a Creole singer from New Orleans in every sense of the term.”
What a distance Neville has traveled since working as a stevedore when he cut “Tell It Like It Is” in 1966.