Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Allen Toussaint (Ferst Center, Atlanta, GA – Nov. 7, 2014)
At first glance, the Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech appeared to be of average size, but on this night the theater held not only a packed house but the entire history of a quintessentially American music: New Orleans jazz.
Strutting in from the wings playing the instrumental “Sugar Plum” from their latest release, That’s It! (all original tunes, a first for the band), came Ronell Johnson on sousaphone and Joseph Lastie, Jr., on drums, followed shortly by Charlie Gabriel, tenor sax; Clint Maedgen, baritone sax; Freddie Lonzo, trombone; Mark Braud, trumpet; Rickie Monie, piano; and Ben Jaffe on bass. They are worth mentioning by name because they carry on their shoulders the hefty mantle of New Orleans music, which they will eventually pass to the next generation of Preservation Hall Jazz Band musicians.
Ronell Johnson, a nimble linebacker of a man who danced, spun and jumped while wrapped in his brass sousaphone, is also a powerful gospel singer, belting out an emotionally charged “Dear Lord (Give Me the Strength).” Charlie Gabriel, a fourth-generation New Orleans musician, then sang another new song, “Come with Me,” a delightfully romantic conversation he wrote for the woman who would eventually become his wife.
R&B legend Allen Toussaint appeared in a sparkly turquoise suit with a jacket like a stained-glass window, sat down at the piano and galloped through a handful of his classic standards: “Working in the Coal Mine,” “Fortune Teller,” “Yes We Can Can,” and “Get Out of My Life, Woman,” songs covered by the likes of the Grateful Dead (Toussaint admitted to being a “Dead Head”), Pointer Sisters, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Doors, Butterfield Blues Band, and Glen Campbell. Halfway through “Mr. Mardi Gras,” Toussaint stood up and tossed items from a purple bag into the crowd: Mardi Gras beads, mini footballs, signed Frisbees and more beads — it was lighthearted fun that would segue into a more introspective section.
While the band headed offstage, Toussaint sat alone at the piano and conducted a “self-interview,” sharing his own musical history and education at the piano, from “Chopsticks” and “Heart and Soul” to Broadway tunes and Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina”. His influence as musician, composer and producer, as well as an extensive list of collaboration with such greats as Lee Dorsey, Dr. John, Frankie Miller and Elvis Costello, make him a true American treasure. His baritone vocals and keyboard skills were as solid as ever.
The evening’s highlight was a spectacular, tour-de-force version of “St. James Infirmary” with Mark Braud’s chilling vocals and a trumpet solo that simply killed – dark and melancholy at times, with lightning fast high-note chops at others – and stunning vocals and saxophone by Clint Maedgen.
Throughout the show, the band’s creative director, Ben Jaffe, provided a steady, thumping rhythm on double bass. Jaffe, the son of Preservation Hall co-founders Allan and Sandra Jaffe, has continued the family tradition quite well since assuming control of the band in 1995 when he faced a dwindling selection of veteran musicians and an aging audience base. He has since brought in younger musicians and successfully expanded the world-wide touring schedule.
The current album, That’s It! (produced by Jim James of My Morning Jacket), is the band’s first collection of all original material. For this tour — though they’d never done it — teaming up with Allen Toussaint seemed natural. “It was almost as if we’ve always just assumed it had already happened,” said Jaffe. “Then one day it was like ‘Oh yeah, we need to do this thing’ and the Oh Yeah! Tour was born.”
Concerned that the band would eventually become a museum piece endlessly playing nothing but Louis Armstrong or King Oliver tunes, Jaffe wanted the band to remain relevant, thus the original music. The band’s classic repertoire exists to honor, respect and perpetuate this treasured music, while the new and relevant material exists to protect the future of the genre. In the hands of Toussaint, Jaffe and the band, this music seems positively immortal.