Preservation Hall Jazz Band – Space at Westbury – July 28, 2017
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band means tradition so deeply felt that when you see and hear them in action, you’re reminded that even your most cinematic visions of New Orleans jazz pale in comparison. They’re what you feel like you want to remember—any more might complicate their down-home charm—and all while balancing virtuosic musical chops with big smiles and a well-honed feel for how to compose a show and keep an audience brimming. They’re showmen. They come across smooth, soulful and liberated. Laissez le bon temps rouler at the Space at Westbury or anywhere else they come to hang.
One of the less-discussed aspects of the current version of Pres Hall is how deftly bassist, tuba player and creative director Ben Jaffe has steered them into a modern era, with younger players gradually replacing the veterans in the road band. Along with Jaffe, the lineup features saxophonist Clint Maedgen, trombonist Ronell Johnson, trumpet player Branden Lewis, drummer Walter Harris and keyboardist Kyle Roussel. More than half of the touring group has come on over the last five years. The roots of Pres Hall are well preserved, but Jaffe and team have prevented the band from becoming a museum piece—quite the opposite, as evidenced by how hot they cook when they really get going. In recent years, they’ve collaborated everywhere, from TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek producing this year’s So It Is—astonishingly, the first Preservation Hall Jazz Band album of original music—to guest appearances with everyone from Dave Grohl and My Morning Jacket to Maren Morris and Beck. Their authentic vibe is deep and homey, and everyone wants a piece of it. And what’s more, the band’s infused that vibe into So It Is, which plays up the potent connections between Crescent City and Cuba.
On Friday night, they were equal parts Mardi Gras rave-up and Havana street scene, intermixing ageless NOLA classics like “Tootie Ma Is a Big Fine Thing” with So It Is cuts like “Santiago” and “La Malanga.” The horn players took turns fronting the band, delivering sizzling solos, stoking the crowd, riding grooves that were straight-ahead, or slow-and-serpentine or viscous. If you were expecting a polite supper-club crowd clapping along to “Basin Street Blues,” you instead got pulsating jams—some downright ferocious, like late night at a Frenchmen Street club or, well, Preservation Hall itself. At the outset of the encore, Johnson and Jaffe paired off as a duo of ’bone and tuba for a sing-along “That Bucket’s Got a Hole in It.” And before that came an impassioned speech from Jaffe filled with childhood memories of family members on Long Island, but more important, a capture of what this band was, is and remains: “Those are real instruments played by real people, y’all.” As if we needed to be reminded. —Chad Berndtson | @Cberndtson