Blue notes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2012, 12:00am


I've just returned from attending the second half of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, an extraordinary four days of music spread across 12 stages with live shows from 11am to 7pm. The only problem is that you can't be in two places at the same time and there are always at least that many performances worth seeing taking place simultaneously.

The most difficult choice was whether to hear the Neville Brothers or the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who between them closed the festival on its two main stages. Both sets were going to be special, but since the Preservation Hall set was a celebration of the band's 50th anniversary, it seemed the better bet - but only just.

So it turned out, with a magnificent performance including guest appearances from Allen Toussaint, Bonnie Raitt, Ani DiFranco, Steve Earle, Trombone Shorty, Jazz Fest founder George Wein and New Orleans trumpeter Lionel Ferbos - who is 100 years old and still playing highly effectively.

I gather the Neville Brothers were pretty good too.

It turns out there is an opportunity this weekend to catch two of the Jazz Fest acts I missed a little closer to home. The Venetian Macao is holding a three-day carnival which takes New Orleans and Mardi Gras as its theme.

Representing the music of Louisiana are a stripped-down version of the Neville Brothers calling themselves The Nevilles, leading cajun/creole/zydeco band the Pine Leaf Boys, and a New Orleans-style brass band led by tuba player Michael Foster.

Aaron Neville will not be appearing, but Neville Brothers and Meters founding member Art Neville will be leading a band which also features Charles and Ivan Neville.

Those bands will be playing the Venetian Carnival Charity Ball on Saturday, and the weekend's programme of events will be officially opened on Friday at 7pm by guitarist and vocalist George Benson - a bona fide jazz legend as well as a pop star - who at 8pm will perform in The Venetian Theatre.

Tickets for Benson's performance are available from for HK$400, HK$600 and HK$800; tickets for the ball from the same source cost HK$1,200.

Performing for free on a stage in front of the hotel from 6pm on Friday will be 12 jazz and blues bands from around Asia competing for HK$500,000 in cash prizes in the Venetian Macao International Jazz & Blues Competition 2012.

The winner will be announced at about 10pm on Sunday and, given the value of the prizes, the organisers are expecting to attract high-calibre talent. The first prize is HK$250,000, the second prize is HK$150,000 and the third prize is HK$100,000.

The Michael Foster band lead New Orleans-style street parades around the property and the Pine Leaf Boys will make outdoor appearances playing short sets.

Among those, the must-see act is Benson, who will be 70 next year. With his pop-star heyday behind him he is now integrating into his shows more of the funky blues- based jazz guitar which made his reputation in the first place.

Before his commercial breakthrough - mostly instrumental - album Breezin', on which he sang Leon Russell's This Masquerade, Benson was regarded by many as the single best guitarist in jazz and the heir-apparent to Wes Montgomery. He was a frequent poll winner, and performed as a sideman with heavyweights including Miles Davis, Jimmy Smith, Lee Morgan and Hank Mobley.

Breezin' was the first jazz album to sell a million copies, and earlier records such as The New Boss Guitar of George Benson and The George Benson Cookbook have worn well.

He has 10 Grammys to his name, mostly for pop performances, and earned his success as a singer, even if it was at the expense of his instrumental talent, which he has never allowed to rust. You can certainly expect to hear the vocal hits, but with a bit of luck he may feel inclined to let his guitar do a fair amount of the talking.

Take Three

Three recent albums by participants in the Venetian Macao's carnival.

Back Home (Valcour Records, 2010): this album from cajun and creole music specialists the Pine Leaf Boys won them their fourth Grammy nomination and comprises tunes they grew up hearing in Louisiana dance halls, sung in both French and English.

Gold (Hip O-Records, 2005): the definitive anthology of the best recordings by the Neville Brothers, both individually and collectively, includes several hits by The Meters and spans five decades from Art Neville's 1954 hit with The Hawketts, Mardi Gras Mambo, to the title track of the Neville Brothers' most recent studio album, 2004's Walkin' in the Shadow of Life. Vintage stuff.

Guitar Man (Concord, 2011): there should be something here both for fans of Benson's crooning and for jazz lovers who tend to wish he'd just shut up and play his guitar. Vocally he is in fine form and his guitar work is much further to the fore than usual. The Champs' Tequila was one of Montgomery's signature pieces, and the highlight of the album is a fine version of John Coltrane's Naima.