Preservation Hall Jazz Band Bring Cuba to New Orleans, and Vice Versa

by delarue

Listening to a gargantuan five-album set of New Orleans music (see yesterday’s piece here) makes a person hungry for more. So today’s album is the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s latest release, the soundtrack to the documentary film A Tuba to Cuba, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a throwback to the days of Machito and the first wave of Afro-Cuban music making its way to these shores, tracing bassist Ben Jaffe’s trip with the band to Cuba for some deep roots immersion. If you like your salsa on the organic side, this is for you.

Being on the gulf, New Orleans played an enormous role in helping spread American jazz, blues, soul, country and gospel sounds to Mexico and points further south. And that pollintation worked both ways. So it only makes sense that the revered, multi-generational band – who’ve always played a lot more than just New Orleans jazz – would look to Cuba for inspiration.

With its smoky sax, echoey Rhodes piano and slinky salsa percussion section, the album’s first track, Timba, comes across as a mashup of the Meters, Morphine and slinky Afro-Cuban traditions. The second cut, simply titled Descarga (which makes sense since it’s a hypnotic one-chord jam) has spiky cuatro and energetic call-and-response vocals from the group’s Cuban collaborators in lieu of the band’s legendary brass. They bring all that back in I Am, a jubilant soprano sax-driven cha-cha, then take it down again with the balmy, vamping sax-and-Rhodes ballad Corazon.

With Keep Your Head Up, they take a cheery mambo and make a second-line march out of it. Then they invoke the ancient Yoruba spirits with stirring vocal harmonies in a shout-out to the god of good times, Ellegua. The album’s best track is Kreyol, part biting minor-key cha-cha, part New Orleans shuffle, with more than a hint of dub reggae. Another standout is Paloma, a brief, rustic bolero for just cuatro and vocals.

The band return to summery sax-and-Rhodes ambience in Solitude, picking up the pace with the careening, shuffling Manicero, a slightly out-of-tune tres adding to the haphazard energy. They wind up the record with Malecon, a starry mambo.

Although the group tour from time to time, they typically hang close to their home base. So it was a rare treat to be able to catch them live, early one afternoon in downtown Brooklyn in the summer of 2017. Even at that early hour, they were even more adrenalizing than they are on this record, with a fiery, solo-centric mix of marches, funk, expansively brassy jazz and brooding soul themes.