Preservation Hall Jazz Band at Orchestra Hall

31 Mar

There are many New Orleans institutions – beignets at Cafe Du Monde, Mardi Gras beads, jambalaya and po’boys – but few travel so well as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. On Friday night the seven members of the traveling band ventured to the northern shores of the Mississippi, playing two sets that linked their past and present, and filling Orchestra Hall with joyous, raucous, warm and enveloping Louisiana glow.

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For the performance, the band featured bandleader Ben Jaffe on upright bass and tuba, trumpeter Mark Braud, pianist Rickie Monie (one of three living Steinway artists from New Orleans, the other two being Dr. John and Harry Connick Jr.), ageless clarinetist Charlie Gabriel, trombone player Ronnell Johnson (a former highschool student of Jaffe’s), drummer Joe Laste Jr. (who, on the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, was pointedly introduced as being form the Lower Ninth Ward) and the sleek Clint Maedgen on saxophone. The first set of the night was taken entirely from the Sweet Emma and her Preservation Hall Jazz Band record, which was recorded in 1964 at the old Guthrie Theater on the band’s second trip out of New Orleans – the first trip had also been to the Guthrie in 1963. The Current MC Bill DeVille had been out to introduce the band, and had found out that there were a number of people in the audience who had been in attendance at the Guthrie when the Sweet Emma record was cut. That record was recently added to the Library of Congress, and Jaffe told the story that the tape machine had only been rented for one night, so his parents, Preservation Hall founders Allan and Sandra Jaffe, raced back to the apartment and spent the night rushing through and cutting the tape to make sure they had the record by morning.

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On the night, their renditions of tunes like “Yellow Dog Blues,” “Whenever You’re Lonesome,” “Basin Street” and “Closer Walk With Thee” featured a lighter, slower touch than maybe the frenetic pace of earlier recordings or the intimacy of Preservation Hall might afford, but there was nothing lacking. Languorously prolonged, trilling sax solos came out of Maegdan, and Johnson had star turns with his full-bodied, big-swinging, rasping, bellowing elephantine trombone. The whole effect was one of venerable tradition, but not simply for the sake of posterity, but because the songs still move, and still swing.

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The second set was taken from their recent record That’s It, the band’s first recording of original tunes. That a band whose mission is to preserve New Orleans jazz has recorded new material may seem out of place, but if any group of musicians is to add to the canon, it should be these musicians, with their New Orleans roots running deep. The best gardens grow with careful tending and new planting, and the songs from That’s It blossomed in Orchestra Hall, from the gospel-inflected call and response of Johnson on “Halfway Right, Halfway Wrong,” to the roaring, pulsing horn Braud brought to center stage in the title track, to Charlie Gabriel’s sweet, spare phrasing in the smooth charmer “I Think I Love You.”

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For a man about to celebrate his 83rd birthday, Gabriel closed out the night on a youthful, inviting note. After coming out for their encore with a swinging rendition of the traditional “Down By The Riverside,” Gabriel finished with the new song “Come With Me.” Jaffe noted that it was his wedding anniversary and his wife had asked for this song, and then invited couples to get up and dance, which a surprising number of people (for a Minnesota audience in Orchestral Hall) took him up on. “Come with me to New Orleans,” Gabriel smiled out to the audience as the couples shimmied, “I show you a great time. All your dreams will come true, with my by your side.” And for the night, they did, up at the northern tail of the Mississippi, coming back to that place that they had been before, to arms ready to welcome them back.

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