Preservation Hall Jazz Band
So It Is
Preservation Hall is a New Orleans institution. It has the aura of being a remnant from the turn of the 20th Century. It feels like it’s been there forever. The Hall as we know it only came into existence in 1961 when some jazz fans took steps to make sure that the folks who were there at the birth of jazz would have a place to play and pass on their music. Allan Jaffe and friend were taking a bold step in the Jim Crow South by creating a space for musicians and fans of all backgrounds to gather and enjoy the music.
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band evolved out of the Hall and it’s mission. I first saw the Preservation Hall Jazz Band sometime in the ’70s when it was lead by Percy and Willie Humphrey. Back then the band was all about preserving traditional jazz, keeping the repertoire alive and spreading appreciation for the art form.
Time moves on. The mission of Preservation Hall remains the same, but it has evolved. Sweet Emma, Percy Humphrey, and Allan Jaffe are all gone now. The first generation of jazz players is gone, but the mission of preserving and passing on the music remains. Ben Jaffe is the director of Preservation Hall and leader of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The Hall remains a place to preserve and nurture original New Orleans music. It’s has taken on an educational mission to foster the growth of new generations of musicians as well.
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band has evolved too. The band is no longer content to be the worlds best repertory band. The band has collaborated with everyone from Del McCoury, Elvis Costello, Foo Fighters, and the Black Keys. These collaborations are in the tradition of New Orleans as a crossroads town, where things blend, get mixed together and come out as something new and different. With their 2013 release, That’s It, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band began recording original material for the first time.
So It Is picks up from the innovations of That’s It. There are seven new compositions on the record inspired by the band’s 2015 tour of Cuba. Ben Jaffe said of the experience, “A gigantic light bulb went off and we realized that New Orleans music is not just a thing by itself; it’s part of something much bigger. It was almost like having a religious epiphany.”
So It Is opens with the slow, bluesy title track. Its languorous mood is a set-up. The mellow tune is preparing you for a relaxed evening chilling in the lounge with a sazerac or two. Then “Santiago” kicks the chair out from under you! A manic Louis Prima beat jump-starts the horns. Ronnel Johnson’s trombone growls, Charlie Gabriel’s saxophone honks but mostly Branden Lewis’s trumpet screams. The horn licks are like a triple shot of Cuban coffee: hot, strong and powerful enough to wake the dead.
“Innocence” evokes anything but. In my mind, the snaky, syncopated rhythms and sinuous horns make me think of a stroll through Storyville. I imagine a band playing for a belly dancer doing their best to evoke an American’s ideal of the exotic orient.
Everyone gets a chance to show their stuff on “La Malanga”. The Latin jazz number has plenty of room for soloing. Johnson and Lewis make their horns howl and pianist Kyle Roussel get in a good chorus while the rhythm section keeps the bodies in motion. “Convergence” has the feel of a Professor Longhair mambo. “One Hundred Fires” begins like a funeral dirge, only to morph into a soulful shuffle that showcases Gabriel’s torrid tenor, some muted trombone growls and electric organ.
The disc ends with a tune ready for the second line. “Mad” is a relentlessly upbeat number that features the whole gang singing, “I ain’t mad at you babe, I ain’t mad at you. Makes no difference what you do babe, I ain’t mad at you”. I can just picture the band filing off the stage singing this number and leading the audience right out the door and down the street.
There is an old entertainment business saw that you should always leave the punters wanting more. So It Is does that for me. I put on the disc and get transported to planet PHJB. Before I know it, the band is singing it’s way out the door and I’m not ready for the party to end. I want to grab a tambourine and follow them down the street. Since that parade is only in my mind, I settle for hitting repeat on the stereo and playing it all over again.