The idea behind the formation of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in 1961 by tuba player Allan Jaffe was to showcase and celebrate the vibrant musical history and heritage of the Crescent City. As the oft-referenced birthplace of jazz, New Orleans in general and the French Quarter, in particular, carries with it a rich history of musical luminaries and stylistic innovators who, over the last 120 years or so, have gone on to spread the gospel of jazz to the farthest corners of the globe. Now, in the 21st century, the PHJB under the guidance of Jaffe’s son Ben, while still a world-class representative of its city’s fertile musical community, has moved from living museum piece into a fluid, ever-changing representative of jazz’s past, present, and future. Over the course of the last decade, the group has moved away from the strict interpretation of existing material into original recorded compositions that not only encompass the genre’s stylistic heritage, but also its myriad offshoots and influence throughout contemporary popular music.
This approach is integral to the music’s continued survival. To remain relevant jazz must remain a living, breathing art form rather than settling into little more than a moldering museum piece occasionally dusted off by nostalgists pining away for a bygone era. Recognizing this as necessary for the continued cultural relevance of the music that helped essentially put his city on the map, Ben Jaffe, since taking over for his father in the late ‘90s, has retained the group’s original reason for being, while infusing the group’s take on traditional jazz with more modernist explorations, collaborations and recordings. The most notable changes in recent years have been the move away from straight traditional jazz and reinterpretations of an existing catalog to an embracement of more modern sounds and a move towards original compositions.
So It Is picks up where 2013’s That’s It! left off in terms of a more in-depth venture into originals territory. With nary a cover in sight, So It Is is the work of an actual group at once capable of musical and cultural preservation, while also furthering the creative endeavor of the art form. Here they incorporate elements of Afro-Latin jazz and funk into their city’s musical gumbo to create something at once timeless and imminently modern. “Innocence” is built around a somewhat incongruous electric piano line that sounds more at home in the world of spiritual jazz than that of the PHJB catalog of yore, augmented by decidedly Afro-Cuban horn lines. And yet here it’s just another fine example of the group moving beyond the world of trad jazz into a more all-encompassing approach to the form and its progeny.
Where the opening title track rides a laidback, post-bop groove punctuated by Kyle Roussell’s gorgeously cascading piano lines, both “Santiago” and “La Malanga” ride a scorching Latin groove. There are still trad jazz elements present in each arrangement’s reliance on the sound of “everyone soloing at once”, as was the hallmark of early New Orleans jazz, but each is given a heightened level of energy and intensity that could just as easily get modern listeners moving as those more attuned to jazz’s rhythms. In other words, this is a return to the music’s dance-oriented roots. So much so that it’s virtually impossible to sit still throughout the whole of the album, each track offering its own rhythmically-propulsive dance party in miniature.
“Convergence” falls back on the shuffling second-line groove and R&B-infused piano rolls associated with the likes of Professor Longhair, Dr. John, and Eddie Bo, while “One Hundred Fires” alternates between a funereal shuffle and wickedly funky organ courtesy of Roussell. Taken together, these stylistic explorations function as a rather succinct summation of the music’s evolution; from its trad roots through to its influence on R&B, Afro-Cuban music and nearly all rhythmically-based points in between. Rather than being a fussy museum act, PHJB here proves both itself and the musical history and heritage within which it is steeped to be still as vital and vibrant as ever.
This is how musical preservation best succeeds: maintaining the integrity of the past while acknowledging and elaborating upon the myriad stylistic offshoots and innovations that have come since. Jazz was never meant to be about stasis, and the Preservation Jazz Hall Band here do a fine job of avoiding just that at all costs. Closing track “Mad” is the ebulliently perfect embodiment of this idea, with its celebratory handclaps and its “Makes no difference what you do/I ain’t mad at you” chant leading the charge. Here they incorporate all of the best elements of the city’s rich musical history into an easily consumed distillation of America’s greatest art form and its seemingly endless progeny.