At the Blue Note on Thursday, April 2.
For a few minutes, a specter hangs over the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The hall from which it hails was founded in the 1960s specifically to preserve the tradition of New Orleans jazz, hence the name, but now, with the memory of Hurricane Katrina still bitingly fresh, New Orleans itself seems vulnerable, its unique culture that much more so. When the musicians first start to play, you feel a tense sort of melancholy, like when you visit someone on the brink of death, but then the music is so spirited and vivacious, so animated, that the specter vanishes and you realize that, however dark times might have been, however dark they might still be, New Orleans jazz is simply too lively to ever keel over.
The songs have something to do with that, of course. The irrepressible rhythms can’t help but spark movement—the tap of a toe or the nod of a head at the very least—and the brassy instrumentation effervesces even on the more doleful numbers, creating a perversely pleasurable kind of gloom. But what really breathes life into the musical style is its collaborative nature. Group improvisation demands that musicians listen closely to each other, that they hand the melody around the ensemble, that each musician take his turn in the spotlight and then recede again to give someone else a turn. That kind of collaboration brings out our better selves. It’s beautiful.
The musicians of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band are performers in every sense, so they play up the group’s camaraderie, but it’s definitely there on its own. I’ve done enough ensemble work to know that you can’t get that level of cohesion without genuine bonds between the players. In this case, many of the musicians have been playing together for years, some for decades, and you can hear their rapport in the snug, joyful sound they create together.
The band doesn’t have a weak link, but it does have its standouts. Ralph Johnson makes his clarinet sing with agile virtuosity, and his own voice (many of the instrumentalists take a turn at vocals as well) has a wonderfully retro quality, slightly scratchy yet warmly mellifluous. I enjoyed saxophonist Clint Maedgen’s turns at the microphone, too. Sporting the slicked back hair and pencil moustache of a character out of Paper Moon (hee!), he sings with a gloriously twangy tenor croon. And the rhythm section, anchored by Joseph Lastie on drums and the good-humored Walter Payton on bass, pulls everything together with infectious verve. (I also got a kick out of pianist Rickie Monie’s Rachmaninoff riffs during his big solo, but then I would.)
I could have done without the encouragement to clap in rhythm. (I hate clapping along to music, even under the best of circumstances, but it’s particularly mortifying when half the audience doesn’t seem to understand the basics. I’m not sure what stereotype to blame, but in general: Fellow white people! Please clap on the off beats: beats two and four. Clapping on one and three sounds ridiculous and provides fodder for a lot of unfortunate racially tinged comedy routines. Thank you!) But that hang-up aside, the set was so much fun: a great blend of familiar and obscure tunes and a delightful antidote to my fatalistic tendencies. If old-fashioned Southern jazz doesn’t make you feel good about being alive, I’m not sure what would.