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I probably could've written this review seven months ago. Or whenever the ASO announced that the Preservation Hall Jazz Band would close out the 2008-2009 Symphony Pops series. Because as it was, is and will always be: A symphony orchestra and a New Orleans jazz band don't belong together.
Improvisation, for one, is a wedge between the styles. A conductor, of course, interprets scores, but there's not a freewheeling sense within the orchestra itself: The third chair violinist will never stretch a solo an extra few measures if she's feeling it. The spirit of jazz is in improv — in the back and forth between the band and the audience.
Thankfully, the arrangements the ASO had to work with weren't too fussy (PHJB is played with other symphony orchestras, so surely someone associated with the band provided the arrangements).
Instead, they seemed to be intended to make the orchestra sound more playful (the members of the ASO all wore one strand of Mardi Gras beads, too). Many of the string arrangements were played pizzicato. A flute solo tried to lift up a second line beat.
Mostly, the ASO just sounded superfluous. Good thing, then, that Preservation Hall Jazz Band delivered a bravura performance that almost made you forget everything else. With a seven-piece band that included trombone, trumpet, alto sax, banjo, piano, stand-up bass and drums, PHJB delivered a survey of traditional New Orleans jazz that sounded vibrant. They were no museum piece offering a novelty slice of New Orleans.
Walter Payton, the father of Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Nicholas Payton, has played on dozens of New Orleans' most famous cuts, including Lee Dorsey's “Working in a Coalmine.” Joe Lastie Jr. is one of the city's most famous drummers. Carl Le Banc, on banjo, has collaborated with Sun Ra and Screamin' Jay Hawkins. And on and on.
Befitting their experience, Preservation Hall Jazz Band played casually, usually seated, swaying, exhorting each other along with shouts and even dancing a little. Everyone got a few solo turns, and trumpeter Mark Braud (at 34, the band's youngest member) sang a few times.
In the early part of their set, PHJB encouraged people to dance. This being the symphony, the closest, early on, anyone got to that was a lady whipping a handkerchief back in forth like she was at port saying au revoir to a sailor.
But then the band stirred the audience up with a second line beat and several players dropped down into the audience and recruited a pretty long train of folks to follow them around the hall. There was laughing and arhythmic dancing. Surely, all those getting down have never had a better time. Maybe that's why you pair Preservation Hall Jazz Band with the symphony.