Preservation Hall Jazz Band brought South Shore audience into their groove
September 27, 2011
By Gian Chivas Pogliano
The walls of the South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center rang with music, but also with clapping hands and stomping feet. SMPAC’s 2011 season kicked-off Sept. 25 in rousing style with a performance by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (PHJB), a heritage act that has spent the past 50 years bringing traditional New Orleans jazz to those both familiar and unfamiliar with its lush swing.
Like the Swingle Singers, PHJB is an entity that has succeeded its original lineup; its current musical director, Ben Jaffe, is the son of (the late) Allan Jaffe and Sandra Jafee, who were PHJB co-founders. Ben’s version of the band is a diverse blend ranging greatly in age and name recognition. Some are from Uptown, some from the Ninth Ward. Some were born with a jazz pedigree, and others rose from obscurity.
The show began with the lone piano playing of Rickie Monie, who started the evening off with a piece reminiscent of Jelly Roll Morton. Jaffe joined Monie onstage and one-by-one introduced the band, each of whom took a solo as they entered. When the whole group was present, they settled into the classic “Basin St. Blues,” as popularized by Louis Armstrong. Trumpeter Mark Braud thankfully made no attempts to mimic Satchmo’s delivery, relying instead on a suave yet jivey croon that conjured images of Louis Jordan working over the Copacabana crowd.
Each performer got a showcase song, displaying the great variety of their highly individual styles. Mark Braud, trombonist Freddie Lonzo, and drummer Little Joe Lastie, Jr., brought the taste and simplicity of the traditional Dixieland style (even if Lonzo added a bit more gnarl to his low notes).
Clarinetist Charlie Gabriel, despite being the oldest member, had the most modern approach to his instrument, adding large doses of fast and fluid bebop licks. Gabriel took the mic as well, notably for the Nat King Cole chestnut, “I Want a Little Girl”.
Saxman Clint Maedgen struck a middle ground between Gabriel and the others, sneaking in some speed but often focusing on lyrical and sensuous melodies. The arrangements likewise were balanced between authenticity and modernism, with unexpected touches like two-bar double-time segments, tuba pitch bends, an angular solo from Lonzo, Rachmaninoff-style arpeggios from Monie, and a four-horn simultaneous solo that stunned the audience with its complexity.
The showcased songs showed plenty of range as well, from the expected Fats Waller alligator crawls, struts, and uptempo marches, to ballads, gospel, big band-style arrangements, and two Latin-flavored instrumentals—an important component of the New Orleans jazz style that is often overlooked). Even the intermission music, consisting of Appalachian folk and hymns, was a surprise.
But the most obvious aspect of the band’s performance was the looseness and jocularity they displayed throughout. Other members stuck their watches in Jaffe’s face during his upright bass solo, before turning an imaginary crank in the back of his instrument in order to increase his speed to a white-knuckled blur. After a snare break that would put anyone in the drum corps to shame, the diminutive Lastie stepped from behind his kit and posed as Superman in flight. Braud, who handled most of the stage banter, made lightly self-deprecating comments about the band’s lack of commercial appeal and referred to an exhaustedly slow original called “Sugar Blues” as “the diabetic’s anthem.” However, his wit did not render him immune from some friendly heckling during his unaccompanied trumpet solo, courtesy of Gabriel.
The good feelings climaxed in their finale as some members traded their horns for percussion and whipped up a Latin clave rhythm. Braud chanted, “It’s your last! Chance! To dance! Tear the roof off the sucka!” As the audience rose to their feet, the band made its way into the orchestra pit and led dancers down the aisles like a troupe of Storyville Pied Pipers.
When they returned to the stage the audience members joined them. One young student and her grandmother, in matching red berets, danced together before the elder celebrant burst into a spirited Charleston.
The encore got the audience singing along, too. Following a chant of “Who dat sayin’ they gonna beat them Saints, who dat!” the band went full-tilt (what else?) into the archetypal New Orleans song, “When the Saints Go Marching In”.
Future attractions in this season at the South Milwaukee PAC include saxophonist Joe Lovano, The Improvised Shakespeare Company; spoken word artist George Watsky; and Milwaukee historian John Gurda. More information can be found at www.southmilwaukeepac.org.
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