When Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra took the stage last Friday, the normally stodgy Campbell Hall crowd got a little funky. Mayfield, a trumpet prodigy extraordinaire, played double duty as seasoned showman. “The only thing missing on this stage is a bar,” he quipped, raising his eyebrow at the audience and proceeded to play an exciting solo. As a cultural representative of Lousiana and the city of New Orleans, Mayfield and his Jazz Orchestra are giving some groovy lessons on the rich cultural heritage of the “Crescent City,” with the help of some of the best jazz musicians in the business.
The group began with a rousing rendition of “The Rising Tide,” immediately engaging the audience with a combination of Afro-Caribbean beats and sassy jazz riffs. The music of New Orleans reflects the diverse heritage of the city, not only as the birthplace of modern jazz, but also as a recipient of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora. The infectious groove of the music and the obvious excitement of the players made it nearly impossible to keep from toe-tapping. The caliber of talent in the group is obvious; the players impressed the audience with a list of jazz standards, as well as some less traditional tunes inspired by New Orleans’ lively Caribbean roots.
While the tunes showcased soloists, other musicians demonstrated their enthusiasm with hoots and whistles as the solos got hotter and hotter. Particularly remarkable was Evan “The Ambassador” Christopher, who showcased the triumphant return of the jazz clarinet with a soulful grace. All the players in the saxophone and trumpet sections were outstanding. The excitement of the performance culminated in a feisty duet between two saxophonists and the trumpet section, in which both tried to “outplay” each other in a battle reminiscent of contemporary hip hop. Eventually the musicians got together in unison for a seriously funky beat, at which point one audience member actually began dancing in the aisle. “We’re taking him home with us,” Mayfield said.
The concert became more somber in the second half as the musicians played tribute to their city after the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina. It is a New Orleans tradition to celebrate death as a part of life, and a loss must be mourned in order for the survivors to heal. The UCSB jazz combo took the stage for the final number. Despite initial nervousness, the musicians played well, supported by stellar talent.
Mayfield and his orchestra show that the music of New Orleans is very much alive and grooving. After the final tune, Mayfield told the audience, “I think we had more fun up here than you guys did down there!” While this may be true for the musicians, the same can definitely be said for the audience. It was a fantastic musical experience on both sides of the stage.