A round-trip flight from Atlanta to New Orleans on Delta Air Lines starts at around $150. For considerably less, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield thinks Atlantans can get a feel for the spirit of New Orleans at Emory University this weekend.
Irvin Mayfield brings his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra to the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts Saturday to kick off the two-weekend-long Emory Jazz Festival. Violinist Regina Carter and the Gary Motley Trio perform February 13. The Emory Jazz Band and an ensemble composed of Emory faculty will give a free concert on February 14.
Mayfield said his 19-piece band, which performs spirited, cheerful New Orleans jazz — complete with tuba and banjo — brings the essence of jazz life wherever they perform.
“We believe [the performance] is about representing where we’re from, New Orleans, but also looking to the origins of jazz,” Mayfield said by phone this week before embarking on the band’s 12-city tour. “We approach jazz from a lifestyle perspective, as a philosophy. We think it’s a high-quality thing — the way we play; the way we cook food; the way we dance.”
He added, “New Orleans is still a place where young people dance to jazz.”
Members of the orchestra expect to see this spirit reflected back to them onstage. They’re not phoning it in or going through the motions, Mayfield said, adding that most audiences appreciate this authenticity and are soon able to let loose and get caught up in the music.
The band is performing at such a high level, and the individual musicians are having so much fun playing night in and night out, that Mayfield said it’s hard to imagine the group could get any better. It’s already “bursting at the seams” with 19 members, and he said musicians clamor to get a chance to perform in the group.
Fittingly, Mayfield sometimes rotates out members of the band to give new talent a chance to perform onstage with the orchestra. He noted that for this tour, he’s enlisted Sam Friend, leader of the New Orleans Swamp Donkeys, to fill in on banjo to see how he meshes with the group. There are mainstays, however — the group’s drummer has been with Mayfield since the band formed in 2002.
Logistically, scheduling 19 musicians, each of whom have other musical pursuits, would seem like a challenge. Mayfield dismissed that notion, saying scheduling musicians isn’t the issue; the problem is having enough room to fit all the deserving local musicians in the group.
“For most musicians, this is the type of opportunity that an artist clamors for because it’s the best musicians, it’s an environment where people are being challenged from a performance standpoint and also from a creativity standpoint,” Mayfield said. “This is like signing people up for the NFL of jazz.”
Of course, Mayfield can’t change the lineup of the orchestra too often. Like Duke Ellington, Mayfield composes and arranges to the strengths of the members of the band, and he said that removing key artists would completely change the band’s aesthetic.
While Mayfield started out doing all the arrangements for the group, he said other members have begun offering up tunes, at times even co-arranging. And the music they come up with isn’t just a simple regurgitation of the cherished chestnuts of jazz history.
“We’re not trying to just make a dissertation, a commentary on what’s already out there,” he said. “We are trying to take people on a journey.”