"Hamilton" fans made his set an event Friday at the Fair Grounds. Afterwards, he talked about the through line between the musical and his solo career.

leslie odom jr. photo by alex rawls for my spilt milk
Leslie Odom Jr. meets a fan Friday at Jazz Fest, by Alex Rawls

Friday was as pleasant a start to Jazz Fest 2018 as you could imagine. The weather was perfect, and a day with the moderate star power of headliners Sting and Sturgill Simpson meant that crowds were manageable. At 4:45, I could still walk up and get a cocoon du last po’ boy without waiting in line. 

The most ecstatic crowd during the closing time slot belonged not to Sting or Simpson but Leslie Odom Jr. in the WWOZ Jazz Tent. The award-winning Hamilton alumnus appeared in his current role as a classic male vocalist, and his earnest, easy charm was all the sauce the Hamilton fans needed. When he performed “Dear Theodosia” and “The Room Where it Happened” to close the set, security quit trying to keep the aisle in front of the stage clear as fans packed in, trying to get closer. When he returned for an encore of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” fans called out to him, telling him how many times they’d seen Hamilton. 

It was a scene Jazz Fest often lacks. Music clearly means a lot to most of the people at the Fair Grounds, but it rarely drives them to impractical lengths. When the show ended, 30 or so fans waited for Odom at the front rail like it was a stage door, and one teenaged boy and the two girls with him stayed near tears in a state of hope and fear. After 15 or so minutes, Odom did come out to sign autographs and pose for selfies with fans. He kept at it until he cleared the entire line. When six of seven fans, electric from meeting him, called out, “Thank you, Leslie,” he shouted, “You’re welcome” without looking away from the person in front of him.

The scene, he said, was something he was used to from performing Hamilton on Broadway, but not from his solo tours. “Nothing about this is every night,” Odom said, referring to the fans and his Jazz Fest experience. “This was the most special thing we’ve ever done. There are music lovers in New Orleans and this festival. It was incredible.”

Odom believes his experience as an actor helps him as an interpreter of classic songs. “I certainly use some of the same techniques to find my way into the songs,” he said. For the songs on his debut album and Simply Christmas, he said, “You have to get to the heart of those songs and be sincere. All of these tunes—you’ve heard definitive versions. You have to be hard on yourself and dig down and make a good case for these tunes.”

Sturgill Simpson started his set on the Gentilly Stage by letting the 610 Stompers warm up the crowd. He and his band played as the Stompers danced in front of them on the lip of the stage. It was a goofy touch from an artist not known for goofiness, and the show was never loose in that way again. When Simpson last played Jazz Fest in 2015, he was a song machine, cranking through numbers and letting each song be the star. Friday, the songs gave musical moments a root, but he put more space in each song for guitar solos, keyboard solos, and for much of the set, sax solos from New Orleans’ Brad Walker. That jam-like approach made the show more about him, and made Simpson an easier fit at Jazz Fest than he was in 2015, where he flew the flag for classic country for an audience that rarely hears it. The dudes-jamming vibe also made Simpson an even more curious figure as it balanced the emotional load you can hear in his voice. I was glad that a guy who seems to carry the weight of the world in a solitary way has some pals to play with.

I have friends who play ukulele, and the one set they couldn’t miss was ukulele hero Jake Shimabukuro. The audience was unusually hushed in its rapt attention, which I respected even if I didn’t entirely get it. He introduced one song as a mash-up of Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Were 9” and the guitar solo in “Little Wing,” and then played exactly that. It was impressive, as was everything he did, but each song felt like the solution to a problem on The New York Times puzzle page. 

At the other end of the spectrum was Big Chief Juan Pardo and Jockimo’s Groove. There were no Satrianis onstage at the Jazz and Heritage Stage, but the band’s funk was solid and psychedelic. Pardo is an engaging update of the Mardi Gras Indian vocalist, though the smartest moment came during one of the most musically dubious of the set. The band took on Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” with other members of Pardo’s gang singing the song with voices not up to the challenge. While they gamely soldiered on, Pardo stepped into a spot outside the song in much the same way George Clinton would on Parliament-Funkadelic tracks. He sang/spoke over the band, over the singers, and around the song, giving it life that it was struggling to find on its own merits. That approach was smart, but leaving Marvin Gaye for “Sew Sew Sew” was smarter.

Donald Harrison Jr. has an impressive resumé, one that someone laid out on mic as he introduced Harrison on Congo Square. After we were prepared for “the impresario,” we got Harrison singing about how we were going to party over a lightly funky vamp that didn’t start any fires. Then he played something that sounded like an audition for the theme song for the reboot of Taxi, and I wanted to know when the guy we were introduced to was going to show.

His nephew Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah was frustrating in a different way in the Jazz Tent. He faced an uphill battle as the sound man seemed to be struggling with a part of his music. Once or twice, I heard what sounded like samples, but they came in oddly and sat awkwardly in the mix, so much so that Scott ended one song quickly and moved on to something more conventional. It was disappointing because I’m game for Scott’s argument for “stretch music” and those artists who feel constrained and confronted by the connotations and political dimensions of “jazz” as a label. I also want to hear him make a music that does in fact stretch beyond what we think of as jazz, and we only occasionally heard that Friday. Scott did broaden the sonic palate of the horns by using filters or pedals, and his drummer had a pad of electronic sounds near him in addition to conventional drums, but it sounded like Scott had more adventurous ideas that the situation apparently made hard to do. Because of that, we got a good set, but not one that redefined anything.