The only opening fanfare the Preservation Hall Jazz Band accorded itself last night at the Lyric Theatre was limited to roughly a half-dozen brisk foot stomps on the stage floor by trumpeter Mark Braud. That was the only count off the veteran New Orleans troupe needed to bring the joyous, harmonious swing of Dippermouth Blues to life. The ensuing sense of celebration didn’t cease until the house lights came up 80 minutes later.
Last night’s thoroughly enjoyable performance did more, however, than underscore the PHJB’s scholarly command of New Orleans tradition. This seven-man lineup (which didn’t include Preservation Hall chieftain Ben Jaffe, who doesn’t tour full time with the band) displayed a broader stylistic view than the more ragtime and Dixieland-leaning versions from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Sure, there was tradition to spare in staples like Basin Street Blues and Bourbon Street Parade. Similarly, ample sass and soul dwelled within the musicianship. The most audience friendly example had to be Ronell Johnson, a linebacker-sized musician who may just be the happiest sousaphone player on the planet. With elephant-like blasts from his mammoth horn and a very literal swing in his step that kept him in constant motion, Johnson was a joy to watch.
But this PHJB also owes greatly to blues and bop. Bringing those elements to life weren’t an arsenal of jazz standards, but a generous sampling of original material from the band’s 2013 Jim James-produced That’s It! album.
On August Nights, the band whittled itself down to a quartet (two tenor saxes, piano and trumpet) with a noir style vocal from Clint Maedgen that was more vintage New York than New Orleans in flavor. Similarly, Yellow Moon sent the band into more tropical waters with a fluid groove that approximated rumba. A lighter, slower variation of such rhythm propelled clarinetist Charlie Gabriel’s playfully hapless singing on I Think I Love You.
There were traditional touches in the new songs, too, like the hip-swiveling camp trombonist Freddie Lonzo injected into the Louis Jordan-like Rattlin’ Bones. But even when it looked like the PHJB was going to end the show with a perfunctory When the Saints Go Marchin’ In, the ensemble served up the title tune from That’s It! as a finale. The piece was a brief, exhaustive blowout of tune that began with the unrelenting drive of drummer Joe Lastie Jr. and ended with mad dashes on trumpet from Braud.
If the bulk of this program enforced the vitality of traditional New Orleans jazz, the That’s It! music was a honest affirmation of the invention and possibility such sounds possess today.