Feel a few tremors in Foggy Bottom on Monday night? Chalk it up to “A Night In Treme: The Musical Majesty of New Orleans,” which shook the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The performance delighted and nearly deafened a capacity crowd with a series of blasts from the vast wealth of music that has poured out of the Crescent City for ages. A more jubilant and jarring way to cap the DC Jazz Festival is hard to imagine.
Though inspired by the popular HBO program “Treme,” and hosted by actor Wendell Pierce, who plays a prominent, trombone-wielding character in the series, the concert soon developed its own brassy charm, momentum and power. Pierce narrated the first half of the concert, and the script proved worthy of the music, concisely describing the evolution of New Orleans percussion and early jazz traditions, linking ties to Caribbean, Native American and French opera influences, referencing modern jazz innovators and seminal Louisiana R&B and rock artists. If that sounds like a tall order for a two hour concert, it is.
But the pacing was brisk early on, and the musical illustrations, especially those contributed by clarinetist Dr. Michael White and alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, Jr., were often revealing and compelling. White contrasted breathtakingly elegant phrasing with the rich vocabulary of minor key blues during “St. James Infirmary,” while Harrison adroitly demonstrated how John Coltrane and other jazz titans indebted to New Orleans jazz pioneers boldly reconfigured pop standards with their harmonic and rhythmic ingenuity.
Virtuosic turns, however, weren’t the only thing that kept the audience standing, stomping and dancing for most of the evening. Trumpeter James Andrews, trombonist Big Sam Williams and the relentlessly loud and funky Rebirth Brass Band won over the audience with the force of their exuberant personalities during individual showcases and collective romps. “Just A Closer Walk With Thee," “When The Saints Go Marching In” — many of the tunes were Crescent City staples, but there were more than a few flashes of spontaneous combustion.
Rebirth opened the second half by marching down an aisle in festive second-line fashion, horns blaring, drums pounding, umbrella twirling en route. The group powered up a boisterous tribute to Duke Ellington, via “Caravan,” and pumped out several of its own party favorites, including “Feel Like Funkin’ It Up.” But it soon became clear that the more musicians gathered onstage the better. Eventually all the performers reunited, and to no one’s surprise they took special delight in turning the “Treme” theme song into a resounding shout.
Near the end of the show, several revelers who were hoisted onstage by the musicians created their own house party. A few ushers arrived moments later, apparently to guide the dancers offstage when the music ended. The ushers stood like disciplined sentinels amid the frenzy until one of them, a middle-aged women, suddenly broke ranks and busted loose, nearly dancing her shoes off for a brief moment. In an evening filled with huge ovations, she may well have received the biggest of them all.