A lively night of varying styles from two New Orleans heavyweights
Whitney Balliett, the brilliant jazz critic for The New Yorker, once described jazz as “the sound of surprise” and that certainly jibed with my reaction to New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s performance at Laxson Auditorium last Friday night.
The PHJB was formed in 1961 to promote and preserve New Orleans jazz and a couple of years later began touring the world. They now spend about half the year on the road and this, their Oh Yeah! Tour, next takes them to the San Francisco Jazz Center and in January onto a six-day cruise in the Caribbean before winding up at a Mexican resort for four days.
Their mission is more than celebrating the New Orleans jazz tradition. Rickie Monie, the piano player, says it best: “We’re not a museum. We’re a living, breathing part of New Orleans.” This is where the “sound of surprise” hit me as their repertory really threw me a curve, involving both more and less than I’d expected.
After a few nontraditional tunes by the band—Ronell Johnson, tuba; Charlie Gabriel, tenor sax/clarinet; Clint Maedgen, tenor sax; Mark Braud, trumpet; Freddie Lonzo, trombone; Ben Jaffe, bass; Joe Lastie Jr., drums; and Monie on piano—they were joined by pianist/composer Allen Toussaint. I’m not that up on Toussaint’s oeuvre, which includes many songs written for and covered by famous pop and R&B artists, and several of the unannounced tunes drifted by unrecognized.
Toussaint’s a cheery guy who’s had a long, successful career—he’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll, the Blues, and the Louisiana Music halls of fame—and had quite a bit to say, especially when introducing “Yes We Can,” a song that was a hit for the Pointer Sisters. “They went to the bank with it,” he said, “and took me along, too.” Naturally this got a laugh out of the packed house. He then added that it turned out that he wrote his best songs for others—like Boz Scaggs and Bonnie Raitt. And mentioning how the Grateful Dead covered of one of his songs got a rise out of the crowd when he added, “I’m a Deadhead.”
But for pure comic relief it was hard to top Johnson’s tuba playing: his sturdy build came in handy as, enveloped by his brass tuba, he was in constant motion while playing—twirling in place or strutting back and forth, even hopping across the stage, and occasionally emitting powerful elephantine blasts that fit in perfectly with the music. He also switched to trombone for a lively duet with Toussaint.
About halfway through the 90-minute concert things started to get more interesting for me as they launched into Toussaint’s “Working in the Coal Mine” (a hit for fellow Crescent City artist Lee Dorsey) and Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’.” They then went back to New Orleans’ early days, and the kind of music I was expecting this evening, with a classic interpretation of “St. James Infirmary,” first in a slow version sung by trumpeter Braud, then in a jacked-up version featuring saxman Maedgen’s vocals that was a little too jivey for my taste.
Toussaint also essayed a solo piano piece that, due to its varying tempos, could have served as the score for a silent movie, and into which he slipped a few bars of boogie-woogie and a taste of “Go to the Mardi Gras” by Professor Longhair, one of his influences. Earlier, in the middle of his “Mr. Mardi Gras,” Toussaint dug into a shopping bag full of beads, etc., and tossed them to the highly receptive audience.
After a well-earned standing ovation, Toussaint closed the show with a lovely rendition of one of his most successful tunes, “Southern Nights,” a song that was a hit for Glenn Campbell in 1977.