Preservation Hall Jazz Band – Carpenter Performing Arts Center, Long Beach, CA – 5/15
"In the spirit of spontaneity, all songs will be announced from the stage," read the program. How best to describe the endearing tradition of the house band of the Historic Preservation Hall located in the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana? The recent JazzFest had a huge variety of old and modern music to make the Big Easy echo for weeks afterward. It was great to see a band so soon after that glorious annual musical feast delivering the sound that got musicians everywhere to visit the ancient city to learn to play the timeless magic of New Orleans jazz: a sepia tone photo that never fades.
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band tours for about 150 days around the world each year. In Long Beach, they recruited a local musician named Frank Demond to play trombone. The band is fronted by the no-nonsense samuraui-esque theatrics of John Brunious on trumpet, Ralph Johnson on clarinet, Carl LeBlanc on banjo, Rickie Monie on piano, Walter Payton on standup bass and the awesome behemoth wrists and irrefutable charm of drum kit master Joseph Lastie, Jr. Yeah, the combined age of this sublime acoustic jamband is probably around 12,375 but let me tell you, these cats can show any young musician a thing or ten about rhythm, improvisation, nuance, and tonal restraint. Fast enough for you? Maybe so, maybe not; the tempo is slower than the two-beat Dixieland style. Therein lies its charm each musician is allowed an open, spacious place to communicate an idea; then, on to the next musician falling in line with the audio dialogue: democratic music that allows a voice for everyone…well, as long as you can play really well and keep time with the cadence introduced. Highlights? Brunious would count out a song’s opening with his right foot as he sat in his chair a haunting reminder that music is all about beat, soul and a man’s limb negating the power of a machine. Monie was a combination of Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk on piano – toying with a melody, introducing themes from other songs and never losing his grip on the riff.
"Basin St. Blues" is a first set tune of note that featured Brunious on vocals with a little Louis Armstrong phrasing to add spice. "Shake That Thing" the title track from their latest CD had the crowd shouting out the chorus of a great blues number that had strands of "Move It On Over" written all over its groove. Brunious sang some good ole raunch and roll lyrics:
"Jack and Jill went up the hill.
Jill comes back with a ten dollar bill
shake that thing."
Later in the song, Jill came down the hill with a hundred dollar bill. Good to know that PHJB sang of career opportunities to provide lyrical resonance. Shortly thereafter, a Betty Boop cartoon played during intermission. The Cab Calloway classic "Minnie the Moocher" slinked throughout the animation like a nasty little beast. Were we having a great time? Yes, because some things just never go out of style – a glimpse of spontaneous perfection can be heard within the simple musical framework.
The REAL Walter Payton, as he was announced, gave a very deep baritone reading of "Shimmy Like My Sister Kate" continuing the delightfully bawdy theme of the First Set. "Tiger Rag" had Lastie meowing’ (and on Lead Meow, Mr. Joseph Lastie, Jr.) and soloing on his three-piece drum kit two tom toms and a bass drum. He barely moved his arms; his wrists provided unbelievable power that shook the stage, as his solo was both tasteful and restrained. Reminded me of Jimmy Page’s quote about John Bonham’s Zeppelin force coming from his wrists, not his arms. Yeah, Bonzo was never restrained’ but he had that same wrist force so many other drummers lack.
"Tear the Roof Off This Sucka" featured solos from the whole band as the lights went up in the Carpenter Center. Next…came the grand finale, "When the Saints Go Marching On" as Brunious on trumpet and Demond on trombone exited stage right, walked up the right steps of the seats and continued to the back of the theatre crowd in a tractor beam lock with the jamming duo. As they circled the back and onto the left side of the seats, more people dropped into the jazz congo line and followed the dance onto the stage. The crowd of people lined the back, straddling the band like an old street scene from New Orleans in the 1950s. A kid around ten standing next to Lastie picked up a stick and started bashing on one of the two tom toms while Lastie played the other. Lastie didn’t seem to mind, but Brunious turned around and did the proverbial finger pointing to end the tyke’s solo. The kid walked off the stage with his mom and a hangdog look.
Entertaining and mesmerizing? Hell, yes. If the Preservation Hall Jazz Band isn’t playing in your geographic region, get out to N’Awlins and taste a little of what pure melodic improv once was and still can be. As the jazz great Louis Armstrong once said: "Preservation Hall? Now that’s where you’ll find all the greats."