Music News & Reviews

‘So It Is’ adds ingredients to Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s gumbo

Give a blindfold listen to the first two tunes on “So It Is,” and the act that comes to mind probably won’t 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 band chieftain Ben Jaffe, who co-produced “So It Is” with David Sitek, founder of TV on the Radio, and co-wrote all of the record’s seven compositions. That’s the first clue: acoustic bass, not the usual 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 in Roussell’s jovial playing. But that undercurrent of Dixieland swing that distinguished Preservation Hall Jazz Band 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 uses 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 band’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. Before 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 bounce 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 always has been brewing in the backyard.

Read Walter Tunis’ blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.

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