critic’s pick: preservation hall jazz band, ‘so it is’

Give a blindfold listen to the first two tunes on “So It Is” and the act that comes to mind will likely not be the one making the music – the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, purveyor of the most vintage traditions of New Orleans music.

What ignites the album-opening title track is the upright bass of current PHJB chieftain Ben Jaffe, who co-produced “So It Is” with TV on the Radio’s David Sitek and co-wrote all of the record’s seven compositions. That’s the first clue – acoustic bass, not the usual PHJB underpinning of tuba. Then the song loosens into a late night groove propelled by pianist Kyle Roussel that revels in the kind of boppish, lanky cool one might expect out of New York. But all this is a set up for “Santiago,” a work that explodes into an immediate and quite natural Afro-Cuban groove with Roussel, Jaffe and 84 year old saxophonist Charlie Gabriel (who penned the work with Jaffe). There, the secret of “So It Is” reveals itself. Sure, you can detect hints of New Orleans second line drives throughout the album and a touch of Jelly Roll Morton within Roussell’s jovial playing. But that undercurrent of Dixieland swing that distinguished the PHJB up until the last decade? Forget that. The present day lineup is out to conquer the world – or, at least, the stylistic turf of a prominent regional neighbor.

That’s not to say “So It Is” is in any way a sellout. What unfolds is a rugged, organic sound with a strongly boppish approach to ensemble groove and soloing that utilizes the band’s Crescent City heritage as a launch pad rather than a backdrop.

“La Malanga” perhaps best showcases this decidedly non-revivalist approach with a robust bass, piano and percussion attack that propels the PHJB’s four member horn team with a fearsome ensemble bounce. The rampage, in turn, splinters into criss-crossing exchanges that require a monstrous piano break from Roussel to disperse. Prior to that, “Innocence” tempers the album’s tone but not the sentiment with a lush Cuban groove where Roussel jangles away on Wurlitzer.

The journey ends up back in New Orleans with “Mad.” The song’s hand-clapping, brass happy groove fuels the fun with a “gang vocal” spree (the album’s only non-instrumental passage) that will be bouncing around your brain after just one listen. Guaranteed. The tune is like a welcome home party for a conquering hero of a band that saw the sights, absorbed the inspirations and took them back to Crescent City to mix in the musical gumbo that has always been brewing in the backyard.

(The Preservation Hall Jazz Band has been added to the late night lineup at Forecastle in Louisville. It will play a midnight concert on July 15 aboard the Belle of Louisville. For more info, go to forecastlefest.com.)



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