At a moment when musical streams are crossing with unprecedented frequency, it’s crucial to remember that throughout its history, New Orleans has been the point at which sounds and cultures from around the world converge, mingle, and resurface, transformed by the Crescent City’s inimitable spirit and joie de vivre. Nowhere is that idea more vividly embodied than in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which has held the torch of New Orleans music aloft for more than 50 years, all the while carrying it enthusiastically forward as a reminder that the history they were founded to preserve is a vibrantly living history.
PHJB marches that tradition forward once again on So It Is, the septet’s second release featuring all-new original music. The album redefines what New Orleans music means in 2017 by tapping into a sonic continuum that stretches back to the city’s Afro-Cuban roots, through its common ancestry with the Afrobeat of Fela Kuti and the Fire Music of Pharoah Sanders and John Coltrane, and forward to cutting-edge artists with whom the PHJB have shared festival stages from Coachella to Newport, including legends like Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello and the Grateful Dead and modern giants like My Morning Jacket, Arcade Fire and the Black Keys.
The band began charting a new path with the release of That’s It!, their first album of original material, in 2013. So It Is continues and significantly expands on that expedition. The music on So It Is, penned largely by Jaffe and 84 year-old saxophonist Charlie Gabriel in collaboration with the entire PHJB, stirs together that variety of influences like classic New Orleans cuisine. Longtime members Jaffe, Gabriel, Clint Maedgen and Ronell Johnson have been joined over the past 18 months by Walter Harris, Branden Lewis and Kyle Roussel, and the new blood has hastened the journey into new musical territory. The album’s seven new pieces of buoyant, window-rattling funk find common ancestry with the Afro-Cuban sounds that the band heard in the streets of Havana (witness the NOLA-meets-Cuba bounce of La Malanga), Fela Kuti’s Nigerian funk and the entrancing melodies of Ethiopian jazz (most evident on the sinuous Innocence), the passion of envelope-pushing ‘60s jazz and soul pioneers, and the intense grooves of their modern Coachella counterparts – then filters them all through a Crescent City lens to emerge with something that compels the listener to move.