The crisp opening drum strikes of “Sing, Sing, Sing” signaled a fresh start for the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.
After powering the 18-piece big band through the swinging Louis Prima standard at the New Orleans Jazz Market on Thursday, drummer and newly appointed artistic director Adonis Rose greeted the capacity crowd with, “We missed y'all.”
The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, or NOJO, had not performed publicly in more than a year, not since founding artistic director Irvin Mayfield resigned in July 2016. Mayfield stepped down in the wake of a controversy over his shifting of more than $1 million of New Orleans Public Library Foundation money to the construction of the Jazz Market, the orchestra’s sleek Central City headquarters and concert hall.
Since then, the orchestra’s board has sought to rebuild the organization and move past the controversy. Through it all, the musicians, who for more than a decade represented New Orleans jazz on prestigious stages around the globe, had remained silent.
That changed Thursday.
Following an introduction by new NOJO president and CEO Sarah Bell — who reminded patrons that they could text orders for drinks to be delivered to their seats — the musicians took their places on a Jazz Market stage crowded with chairs, instruments and music stands.
They immediately established their New Orleans bona fides with “Sing, Sing, Sing” and the Allen Toussaint composition “Java,” a huge hit for trumpeter Al Hirt. In NOJO's "Java," trumpeter Ashlin Parker reached for and found a flurry of sky-high notes.
Rose, who alternated drumming and conducting, said that with this first homecoming concert, NOJO wanted to reintroduce itself with favored selections from past performances. They included saxophonist Ed Petersen’s lush arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady.” The trumpet, sax and trombone sections all swept in, spiked by furious sax and trombone solos.
The large ensemble pulled back as trombonist Michael Watson crooned over a swooning arrangement of the standard “Skylark.” Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song” received a moody makeover, with burnished trumpet work by Parker and Barney Floyd.
“Bet y’all never heard it like that!” Rose enthused, correctly.
Watson stepped up once again to apply his clear tenor voice to Wonder’s “Overjoyed,” over a bed of Victor Atkins’ elegant piano. Petersen uncorked a torrid sax solo.
After 40 minutes, Rose introduced the show’s special guest: Sheila “E” Escovedo, the acclaimed drummer/percussionist and longtime Prince collaborator.
On separate drum kits, she and Rose locked into the churning groove of Earth Wind & Fire’s “Africano.” The entire orchestra rode atop the tandem rhythm they laid down.
Weeks shy of her 60th birthday, Escovedo delivered a crackling drum solo, equal parts power, finesse and funk. She earned a standing ovation from an audience peppered with representatives of the south Louisiana wing of her mother’s family, as well as local arts patrons and musicians.
One musician who was not in attendance was NOJO’s founder. Mayfield spent Thursday evening onstage at the Little Gem Saloon as part of his “Saloon Sessions,” a four-night series that concludes Saturday.
He has moved on from NOJO. “A Beautiful World,” his ambitious collaboration with Kermit Ruffins that he produced for Basin Street Records, hit No. 1 on Billboard’s national jazz album chart this week.
But NOJO has moved on as well. And it still sounds great.
The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, dormant for more than a year, is finally ready to embark on …