Preservation Hall Jazz Band
PRESERVATION HALL JAZZ BAND by J Hunter
for the Arts
Here’s an important tip that will improve your viewing and listening pleasure: Never, EVER see the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at a jazz festival! That’s where I first saw them, at Freihofer’s a few years ago, and while I wasn’t bored out of my mind, I simply did not get it. That’s because at a jazz festival, they’re just a group that plays standards – of a specific type and time, sure, but at the end of the day, they’re fighting for your attention just like the rest of the bill. To fully appreciate what Preservation Hall does (both on a musical and an educational level), you need to be totally immersed, just like the full house at the Massry Center.
To say Preservation is all about history is a simplification, because they’re not just about the roots of this genre; they’re also, more specifically, about the city where jazz was reared, and the family ties that bind much of its music community together. We got that right from the jump when Ben Jaffe and pianist Rickie Monie walked onstage and started playing a mid-tempo vamp that would eventually turn into “Basin Street Blues.” Jaffe may look like the lead vocalist for Counting Crows, but the bassist/Sousaphone player is actually second-generation Preservation: His parents Allen and Sandra started the band nearly fifty years ago in the French Quarter storefront that is on everybody’s NOLA must-see list, and Ben first met Monie when he was knee-high to Monie’s piano. As Jaffe brought the rest of the band out one by one, he gave each member an introduction that explained his link to the band and the city’s musical community. By the time trumpeter Mark Braud (also second-generation Preservation) stepped to the mic and began to sing, you knew that this septet was the genuine article.
And then they spent two hours and two sets proving it time and time again.
Although Jaffe is the current creative director of Preservation Hall, Braud is the group’s “leader”. He played trumpet for Henry Butler and Dr. Michael White before he plied his trade with Preservation, and he’s got power and chops that would make Satchmo nod his approval. Braud’s also a hell of a singer, which he showed on “Basin Street” and “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” Tenorman Clint Maedgen actually looks like a singer from Preservation’s era – from his slicked-back, middle-parted hair and pencil-thin moustache to the way he held the microphone on “Short Dress Gal.” He’s also got a white tenor sax that wouldn’t have looked out of place with King Oliver’s bad. The thing is, though, the intention Maedgen puts into his vocals and his solos are too good to make it a put-on. He and Braud also sang dynamite harmony behind clarinetist Charlie Gabriel on “Ole Man Mose”, and Maedgen actually contributed a song of his own, proving that Preservation does do new material! “Halloween” does stick with the band’s general atmosphere, as it talks about how the Great Pumpkin’s big day is one of the best days of the year in New Orleans.
For the record, Gabriel is my new hero. The 78-year old ex-Aretha Franklin sideman doesn’t have the roaring power of Braud or trombonist Freddie Lonzo (who is also “an incredible singer”… though not in a good way), he’s got a sound that’s absolutely mesmerizing, and his effervescent sense of style and personality can’t help but make you smile. His duet with Jaffe at the start of the second set had people up and clapping whether they wanted to or not, and his vocal on “I Want a Little Girl” was filled with the blues. And when he got together with the rest of the front line for some four-way vocalization, the glorious chaos made you understand why some people thought jazz was “the Devil’s music!”
You can’t get much more NOLA than a Second Line, which is basically a band marching with the audience behind it, and that’s how Preservation ended things, leading half the crowd up the stairs and out of the theater with a rousing take on “El Montecero.” It was a beautiful moment that finished on a set of steps in Massry’s beautiful lobby, with the band playing to a cheering throng. It was great, but it was flawed in one way: The people who didn’t (or couldn’t) follow the band were left hanging in the theater, waiting for the group’s return, so their climax was an anti-climax. Still, that’s one blemish on a great evening that literally made the lame dance: A man in my row who could barely get down the stairs at the start of the show was dancing up a storm as Preservation Hall marched out. That’s inspiration, baby!
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.