The songs on So It Is (Legacy), the latest recorded blast of exuberance from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, draw from New Orleans’ musical history while simultaneously pushing toward the future. But bassist Ben Jaffe, the group’s 40-something leader, says this then-and-now blend isn’t rooted in the fact that he co-wrote many of the album’s compositions with saxophonist Charlie Gabriel, a fellow member who’s in his mid-80s. Why not? “I feel like I’ve been a really old person for a really long time,” Jaffe reveals, laughing.
Jaffe relates so well to members of older generations because, as the son of Allan and Sandra Jaffe,who founded the venue for which Preservation Hall Jazz Band is named in 1961, he grew up around veteran musicians. But far from becoming a museum piece under Jaffe’s watch, the group has opened itself up to sonic inspirations from beyond the Big Easy.
According to Jaffe, the band’s 2015 trip to Cuba was hugely influential on So It Is tracks such as “La Malanga,” in part because of musical connections most people miss: “When you combine the two — Cuba and New Orleans — you start hearing Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Domino and all these things I grew up with.”
As for the song “Convergence,” Jaffe says, “It was inspired by the North African musical tradition,where songs are played for a very long time — 20 or 30 minutes — and they go through all these different altered forms.” But thanks to an introduction by new keyboardist Kyle Roussel that, says Jaffe, is reminiscent of Professor Longhair or Allen Toussaint, “you can hear both New Orleans and Africa in it.”
Helping keep the mix fresh was producer Dave Sitek, from the indie rock band TV on the Radio. But Sitek,who Jaffe got to know while co-writing a song that wound up in HBO’s Robert Durst docuseries The Jinx, didn’t try to change the band’s sound. Instead, Jaffe stresses, he sought to capture its essence. “When Dave came to town,we happened on this New Orleans second-line parade,” he recalls. “And when he saw this completely acoustic band marching down the street and having a dance party, everything came together for him.”
Jaffe feels the resulting album has earned its place in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s legacy. “At a certain point,” he says, “it goes beyond music and it goes beyond notes and it goes beyond genre and it goes beyond this world. It’s magical.” —Michael Roberts