“I’ve been playing since I was 11 years old. I never did anything in my life but play music,” says saxophonist/clarinetist Charlie Gabriel, the oldest member of New Orleans’ own Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
This is the year that Gabriel turns 89 years old. So if we take him at his word, that means he’s been playing music since World War II was still raging on two fronts. When you’ve been doing something for that long, it’s not just second nature, it’s a way of life. And if music is a way of life for someone like Gabriel, 89 is just another day in said life. Mostly recorded with guitarist Joshua Starkman and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band tubist/double bassist Ben Jaffe, 89 is not the sound of a smokin’ hot New Orleans gig. Instead, it embodies the after-gig atmosphere, where just a handful of musicians are sitting in the corner as everyone else is heading out, winding down by quietly playing some old favorites simply because they feel like it.
89 is, for the most part, made up of old standards like “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You)”, “I Get Jealous”, and “Stardust”. Sharp-eyed fans of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band will recognize at least one of the two originals here, “Yellow Moon”, which initially appeared on the band’s first release of all original material in 2013 titled That’s It! The other original is “The Darker It Gets”, one of the three tracks that features Gabriel’s affable singing voice. “The darker it gets, the better I see / That hidden place inside of me,” he sings in an easy melody reminiscent of Louis Armstrong’s laid-back rewiring of “Lazy River”. This metaphoric hidden place isn’t so much a dark one as it is a mysterious one that revels in the ambiguities of love.
“I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You)” and “I Get Jealous” are the other vocalized numbers, the former featuring some spry clarinet work as an introduction. Placed at the end, “I Get Jealous” is a good deal more upbeat. With Gabrel’s wide-ranging saxophone solos and a drum performance that kicks it up a notch during the solos, the song gives 89 an uncharacteristically flashy finish that isn’t entirely out of place.
Conversely, the beginning sequence of “Memories of You” followed by “Chelsea Bridge” isn’t exactly a one-two punch, even when Gabriel’s saxophone is at its loudest. “Stardust” doesn’t even feature Jaffe as it lets Starkman color in the background with thick, warm chords with plenty of ninths and 11ths. The interplay between Jaffe and Starkman doesn’t need any percussion to drive the Latin feel of “Three Little Words”, but percussion is used nonetheless as Gabriel’s saxophone plays hot potato with the dynamics. Unsurprisingly, “Yellow Moon” is scaled back from its other recording nine years prior. If anything, the lack of so many wind instruments allows the rest of the musicians to refine the irresistible cha-cha feel.
As a musician, Charlie Gabriel proved himself long ago. He played alongside a young Charles Mingus in Lionel Hampton’s band, for crying out loud. So why did he wait until he was almost 89 to release a solo recording? If anyone had asked him this question, the answer was not included in the press release. At this point, it probably doesn’t matter. Thanks to Jaffe’s ongoing pursuits to keep the legendary New Orleans band active and Sub Pop’s interest in Gabriel’s quiet little sessions, 89 can be handed down to the next flock of jazz connoisseurs eager to dive into the city’s past and present. No wheels are reinvented, but sometimes being serenaded by an 89-year-old can really hit the spot.