Allan Jaffe founded Preservation Hall Jazz Band in 1961 with a vital and critical mission: promoting and preserving New Orleans‘ jazz and its jazz culture with the authenticity that it deserved. And although most of the act’s first lineup is no longer with us, the act has continued on its mission with a variety of different lineups, recording over 30 studio albums, a live album, and a touring schedule that has included collaborating with a number of renowned popular acts at festivals and concerts, helping to introduce and re-popularize the New Orleans jazz sound to concertgoers and music fans across the world.
With the act celebrating its 50th anniversary earlier this decade, the milestone left its current creative director Ben Jaffe, the son of the act’s legendary and beloved founder, and its current members with a couple of deeply existential and important questions: First, how does an institution based on early 20th century musical culture survive and prosper in the early 21st century? And second, how do they do that while continuing to preserve and honor New Orleans’ musical culture and sound? Interestingly, the answer Jaffe and company came up with was that they needed to reinvent themselves and their sound by looking at the future, but with a loving and kind gaze at what inspired and influenced them, and at their previous history. Or in other words, with the band’s first 50 years being focused on the sounds and styles of the past, Jaffe and company felt it was necessary to make the institution’s next 50 years about how they can modernize without forgetting or losing the vital connection to the past.
Jaffe and the members of the band decided that the best way to look towards the future would be to write and record new, original material — including the band’s first album of originals, the boisterous and joyous That’s It!, which included album title track “That’s It,” “Dear Lord (Give Me The Strength)” and “Rattling Bones” among others. April 21, 2017 will mark the release of the Dave Sitek-produced So It Is, the septet’s second album of original material — and the album’s material finds the band mining fresh influences, including their 2015 life-changing trip to Cuba. As the band’s leader, arranger, composer and multi-instrumentalist Ben Jaffe explains in press notes, “In Cuba, all of a sudden we were face-to-face with our musical counterparts. There’s been a connection between Cuba and New Orleans since day one — we’re family. A gigantic light bulb went off and we realized that New Orleans music is not just a thing by itself; it’s part of something much bigger. It was almost like having a religious epiphany.”
Featuring compositions and songs largely penned by Jaffe and 84 year-old saxophonist and clarinetist Charlie Gabriel in collaboration with the members of the band, the material ties the New Orleans jazz sound to the larger African Diaspora, in particular with the Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Cuban sound through the common sonic and aesthetic linkages — in particular Fela Kuti, Pharaoh Sanders and John Coltrane. Of course, the material also draws from the continuing post-Katrina rebuilding of New Orleans that has forced all locally-based artists to consider what the city’s sound and culture means and should be in 2017 and onwards. And lastly, the material draws from their collaborations with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello, The Grateful Dead, My Morning Jacket, Arcade Fire and The Black Keys.
As I mentioned earlier, Dave Sitek was enlisted to produce So It is. Sitek, best known as a founding member of TV on the Radio and a go-to producer, who has worked with Kelis, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Santigold and others, also offered a modern perspective and a profound respect for the band’s history. In fact, as Sitek recalls upon his arrival in New Orleans to meet Jaffe and the members of the septet, he and Jaffe had randomly stumbled into one of the second-line parades, which New Orleans has long been known for. “I was struck by the visceral energy of the live music all around, this spontaneous joy, everything so immediately,” Sitek said in press notes. “I knew I had to make sure that feeling came out of the studio. It needed to be alive. It needed to sound dangerous.”
“Santiago,” So It Is’ first single bares a clear resemblance to the material on its predecessor as it possesses a boisterous, riotous joy; but unlike any of their previously released material, the composition is a difficult to pigeonhole melange of influences and sounds that features a propulsive rhythm section that seemingly draws from Cuban son, meringue and salsa, Afrobeat, and big band jazz paired with a bold, bright, swaggering horn lines familiar to New Orleans brass band and jazz. Interestingly, the composition possesses a loose and completely improvisational feel, as the musicians in the band catch a groove and ride it; but there’s also enough room for the members of the band to play strutting and swaggering solos. Simply put the band and this particular composition radiate an indefatigable joy — and if you don’t immediately start to dance as soon as you hear it, there’s something deeply wrong with you.
Now, if you’ve been frequenting this site for a while. you’d know that I have a profound love of the New Orleans sound, have written about the legendary Preservation Jazz Hall Band and have even caught them live a couple of years back, when they stopped at Brooklyn Bowl for an incredibly fun Christmastime show. The recently released video for “Santiago” captures the band at their best — live. And it shouldn’t be surprising that the video captures the song’s explosive and swaggering energy; but it should remind you that jazz while jazz over the past 50 or 60 years has been reduced to “classy” establishments, jazz has long been the sound of rebellion, of ebullient and frenetic joy, of passionate, seductive danger.