New Orleans Vibe Fills BeanTown Streets

Berklee's—and Boston's—fastest-growing music festival turns 10 with a nod to the Crescent City and a lot of great music.

October 11, 2010

Beantown '10 was touched by the benevolent hand of the weather gods. High-riding harvest moons illuminated the week, when the quartets of Robert Glasper (brilliant, precious) and Danilo Pérez (ingenious, trusting) climaxed consecutive pre-festival evenings at Boston's top jazz clubs, Scullers and Regattabar. The Saturday of the outdoor festival shone sunny and breezy as folks sauntered down Mass. Ave. toward the Beantown Stage, the weather even more welcome considering that this festival paid tribute to New Orleans, a city that Berklee has many ties to in the post-Katrina era. 

Noon arrivals at the Beantown Stage were greeted by faculty member Victor Mendoza's four-mallet barrages and his septet's simmering montunos. Alumna Melissa Aldana, tenor sax; student flutist Kalani Trinidad; and Juan Alcala, piano, soloed pointedly over smoking tempos with popping percussion—timbales, congas, cowbells—and faculty member Fernando Huergo's bass.

Berklee's City Music All-Stars—an eight-student group—blew hearty bop standards with passion. Alto saxophonist Ben Allen (soloing on "Eye of the Hurricane"), vocalist Jessica Johnson ("Twisted"), and pianist Jesse Taitt's roving lines were highlights.

Berklee Global Jazz Institute's front line of talented students teamed violin and guitar with reeds in balanced, Latin-steeped jams. Mark Whitfield, one of many Beantown drummers at home with Latin grooves, was paired with bassist Jeong Lim Yang. Eyal Hai (alto sax; he'd sparred with Danilo Pérez at Scullers the night before) and Matt Halpin (tenor sax) showed fire and spirit. 

Faculty instrumentalists, including Harry Skoler, Billy Thompson, and John Pierce formed the front line of a roving faculty band that strutted from one end of the festival grounds to the other, blasting traditional New Orleans tunes in second-line style.

Andy Milne and Dapp Theory fused street-smart poetry with hard-swung polyrhythms for an audaciously variable, moody set with rapper John Moon's snappy "After the Fact," Aaron Kruziki's searing reeds—sax, clarinet, duduk—and the leader's astute piano. 

Local residents whose comfy chairs soon lined the shady oaks by the Target Park (a.k.a., Carter Playground) were serenaded by veteran Boston sextet WeJazzUp with samba, swing, and "Funky Valentine." "Here's Boston's best forum for young and old to exchange musical ideas, and the whole community to get together. I wish we could do this every two weeks," said WeJazzUp pianist Frank Wilkins.

A Brazilian shout-down in good fun highlighted seamless vocal duo improvisations by Rhiannon and faculty pianist Jetro da Silva, whose knockout rhythm team featured guitarist Alex Acuña and alumnus bassist Abe Laboriel Sr. 

Recent Berklee guitar grad Julian Lage exulted in electrifying acoustics with Jorge Roeder's ripe bass and Tupac Mantilla's hot kit for a kaleidoscopically international set: gypsy, Hot Club de France, flamenco, country, and swing, with nods to Metheny, Pizzarelli, Gismonti, and others. 

The Boogaloo Swamis lashed out Cajun party music and zydeco shenanigans with squeezebox, fiddle, and guitar, wailing some fancy bayou two-steps and waltzes. A couple of toddlers led the second line dancers while the band tore through its set.

Grace Kelly—a 19-year-old student saxophonist and vocalist—mixed teen enthusiasm with a mature alto sound, projecting her well-crafted originals with a loose, playful stage presence (blue high-heel sneakers, for starters) that buoyed her quintet's performance. Grace's alto showed round tone, inventive ideas, and bristly attack as she and alumnus trumpeter Jason Palmer gave "Caravan" a multi-tempo workout, with crazy harmonies by faculty pianist Doug Johnson. Fred Taylor, famed Scullers director, was on hand to appreciate the band's progress.

Exhorting us to express ourselves, New Orleans-based pianist Jon Batiste treated the pressing crowd to riveting solos, one summoning bright shades of James P. Johnson and Professor Longhair, another a Chopinesque "Star-Spangled Banner." Joined by fellow NOLA musicians and scholarship students Max Moran (bass) and Joe Dyson (drums), Batiste barrelhoused some blues and spiced Monk's "Green Chimneys" with a habañera kick.

Faculty vocalist Gabrielle Goodman and her 10-member group (featuring four background vocalists) roused a growing Target Stage crowd for a heady spin through feel-good soul, r&b, bluesy Tin Pan Alley, and other selections.

Minutes after Goodman's set ended, vocalist Nona Hendryx bolted onstage and raised up the whole shebang. Famous since the 1970s for her work as a vocalist with Labelle and other groups, Hendryx provided another round of loose yet tight crowd-pleasers, like superfunky "Sing It Loud," hypnotic boogaloo "Let's Give Love a Try," and the monster hit "Lady Marmalade." Her devoted band members featured a mix of faculty (vocalists Goodman and Annette Philip), alumni (guitarist Jeff Lockhart), and several students (Otto Gross, keyboards; Brandon Maclin, drums; Darek Cobbs, organ; Joshua Tyson, bass; Jonathan Ong, guitar; and vocalists David Wyatt and Vaughnette Bigford).

The Wild Magnolias, with singers Geechie Johnson and Spyboy Slim in 12-foot-high avian regalia, howled some of that "Pock-A-Way,""Handa Wanda," and "Smokin' My Peace Pipe." Big Bird has nothing on these cats! The crowd went nuts, waving their arms and grinning. They could've parade-marched everybody down to the Charles River. Your reporter caught a strand of purple beads and felt a happy surge of Crescent City euphoria. 

Al Kooper and his Funky Faculty bid adieu to parting guests with relaxed, polished funk kicked along nicely by drummer Mark Teixeira, bassist Jesse Williams, and guitarist Bob Dozema. Former faculty member and rock legend Kooper sang and played keys warmly, with savvy help from Ken Cervenka's trumpet and Daryl Lowery's sax and flute.

Radio hosts emceeing the festival included WGBH's Eric Jackson and Steve Schwartz, WICN's John Stevens (a 2009 Berklee grad) and Jim Benitez, and David 'Jazzman' Johnson of Touch 106-FM. Soul food highlights included grilled corn with lime, Muir Farms' tomato bruschetta, Aunt Iffy's oxtail stew, Jamaican jerk chicken, Bajan fishcakes with peppersauce, and Chef Jacobs' Boss BBQ pterodactyl leg! 

Festival artistic director and faculty member Terri Lyne Carrington later said: "I'm pleased and proud of how the event turned out. The weather was great, the artists performed great, and the atmosphere was perfect. I was also happy to sit in with Nona Hendryx and rock out on 'I Sweat.' I very much look forward to gearing up for next year, as it is not only a lot of fun, but valuable to the communities of the South End, Boston, and Massachusetts." With weather, music, food, and camaraderie all collaborating, this great time was shared by—at an estimate—nearly 100,000 music-lovers, most of whom will want to turn out in 2011, when, rumor has it, the Bean goes Green.