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.
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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.