Never mind the fact that it was a Louis Armstrong festival. The overcast clouds rolling over Queens’ Corona Park were more of a theme than Armstrong’s genius. Besides, the Lauryn Hill performance — not just a performance, but a free one — was the main draw at Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World 2015.
Of the five acts, Hill won many of the evening’s superlatives. She drew the biggest crowd; a couple hundred fans filled that Flushing Meadows–Corona lawn in wait (Hill’s set started 40 minutes late, the latest of the acts). She also required the most members onstage: There was a brass section, a choir section, a string section, and, for Hill, an antique-looking chair. And she eventually elicited the most raucous response of the night when she ended her set with the rapidly rapped flurry of “Lost Ones,” “Fu-Gee-La,” and “Ready or Not.”
The DJ referred to Hill as the Queen of the Earth, and she entered the stage as such. Soundtracked by the audience’s cheers, Hill strolled onstage in her violet gown and floral-colored heels to match the three-piece choir. Then she sat on that antiquated chair. And there she was: Ms. Lauryn Hill. Queen of the Earth. Powerful enough to draw the clouds’ biggest downpour of the day, yet still not quite enough to be heard over her own backing band.
The most anticipated performance wasn’t the best. Hill was visibly thrown off by sound issues moments after starting off with the unreleased “Conformed to Love.” Her acoustic guitar was low and her voice was constantly swallowed up by the drums. It wasn’t until well past the halfway point of her set, which included mostly Unplugged cuts (and a warmly greeted cover of Sade’s “Love Is Stronger Than Pride”), that the sound levels finally got into a groove — or at least when Hill stopped repeatedly gesturing to the sound team. That choir section struggled a bit, too; it was as if they were locked in some sort of competition with the drummer during the climax of “Mr. International.” It was a bombastic set that stripped a lot of the songs of their soul.
But it’s not like it’s a doomed setup. Unplugged’s big flaw wasn’t the skeletal compositions. Its raw emotion was hampered by musicianship limitations. In Queens, though, the sections where Hill sang — and the woman can sing — were given more color by that extra personnel. And when she performed an impassioned “War in the Mind” under a citrus-yellow and -red spotlight before transitioning into “Master of Inequity,” it was clear that the brass wasn’t superfluous, either. Also, Hill still knows how to rap. We saw Nas stumble through “One Mic” and André 3000 bashfully screw up “Roses” during their anniversary performances last year. Hill will perform “Final Hour” and do it in triple time. That’s an increasingly rare thing for 40-year-olds.
So all in all, what we had was Ms. Hill being Ms. Hill: inconsistent — but spellbinding at her best. She didn’t completely overshadow the other four acts, though. Locals Antibalas, Shannon Powell’s Traditional All-Star Band, the Rebirth Brass Band, and Ozomatli took up the six hours before her set. Powell’s quintet and RBB were the welcome New Orleans tie-in to the other two. The former was the superior act; the Rebirth Brass Band’s traditionalist grooves felt a tad too exclusive, while Powell’s band impressed with its virtuosity (bassist Peter Harris and Powell, the drummer, looked like they were busting their asses). And Powell, who sounds like a mix of Cab Calloway and the Slum Village skit, was a genuinely entertaining personality.
Antibalas, the opening act, started off perhaps a bit too bland with their Afrobeat grooves. But they quickly won the dozens in attendance over with Duke Amayo’s eccentric presence (robotic dance moves, the sewn-together red-and-green outfit) and the increasingly capricious songs the set comprised. Antibalas interpolated Rockwell’s 1984 hit “Somebody’s Watching Me” — a joke song that, as vocalist Marcus Farrar noted, was pretty ahead of the time with smartphones and government surveillance and all — and delivered an impressive horn performance with “Sáré Kon Kon.”
Ozomatli had the best performance by at least one metric: ably enthusing a crowd only a small portion of which knew who they were. To wit, Justin “El Niño” Porée posed two questions toward the middle of the set: “How many people have heard of us?” and “How many people haven’t heard of us?” More people cheered at the latter.
The group ended up winning the crowd with constant enthusiasm — with the little things like Porée’s gyrating hips; synchronized cavorting; and excellent vocal work. Ozomatli closed out their Ornette Coleman–dedicated set with a percussion line into the audience. The line continued past their allotted time. It continued as the audience redirected the attention to the front stage. It continued as the DJ started the set-transition music, and while the stagehands started preparing for the coming of Ms. Lauryn Hill.
But as Ozomatli’s frontmen verbally conceded, it kind of always was about Hill throughout that whole day. Yet the Louis Armstrong festival didn’t carry any sense of fatalism through its eight hours. The performances didn’t carry Armstrong’s traditions in genre, but it ought to be noted that part of what made jazz what it is was the nature of improvisation and the inherently compelling idea of finding new possibilities within musical constructs — or just making up a new construct altogether. Though many songs were unfamiliar to many, the musicians’ enthusiastic solos and jubilant progressions worked past any obscurities and made for some long, savory moments steps from Satchmo’s former stomping grounds.