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Monday, Sept. 1, 2014

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band @ Turner Hall Ballroom

Aug. 29, 2014

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So many seats and tables were set up the Turner Hall Ballroom floor Friday for the performance by The Preservation Hall Jazz Band that it prevented most attendees from doing what might have otherwise come naturally for them, what the group’s music facilitated in its original early-20th-century period of development and popularity: dancing.

Jazz may have become more of a cerebral than physical experience for much of its audience over the past century, but this octet originating from a famed venue in New Orleans’ French Quarter serve more than a curatorial purpose for their energetic take on the first iteration of one of the art forms the U.S. has given the world. Or that would have been more so the case without all that furniture crowding what could have been a dance floor.

At least one of the men on stage compensated duly for most of the attendees’ lack of locomotion. Bouncing around as if there were a circle of springs underneath his feet, tuba player Ronell Johnson stepped about during the few songs on which he wasn’t supplying lead vocals—on numbers such as “Halfway Right, Halfway Wrong,” offering some of the evening’s most arresting visuals. The motion given to the voluminous mop of curls atop the head of banjoist/stand-up bassist Ben Jaffe provided an arresting sight as well.   

It is, of course, more the sounds than the sights that continue to make The Preservation Hall Jazz Band an attraction for the half-century they’ve been recording. It may be the non-jazz influences, ranging from Tom Waits and Bob Dylan to The Velvet Underground and Teddy Riley, of the ensemble’s younger members that add an unexpected lilt to repertoire as old as “Little Liza Jane,” “Shake That Thing” and “St. James Infirmary,” the latter in two variations contrasting a Modern Jazz Quartet coolness (perhaps reflecting some of pianist Rickie Monie’s background) with an especially frenetic take in the Dixieland style in which they specialize.

Though Jaffe’s currently one of the group’s youngest members, his status as the son of the troupe’s founders, Allan and Sandra Jaffe, puts him in the apt position of being the act’s historian. Mention of Milwaukee’s own Schlitz Beer’s sponsorship of 1970s inaugural New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival, an innovative and controversial move for a brewery at the time, merited a round of applause. Also earning some clapping was Jaffe’s notation of Preservation clarinetist/saxophonist Charlie Gabriel’s late-’50s residency at the old Downtown Wisconsin Hotel.

A break nearly as long as the band’s first set separated it from their next, perhaps to give a breather to older members like Gabriel and drummer Joseph Lastie Jr., whose work behind the kit gave the illusion of ease to the complexity of the beats he supplied much of the night. They made the wait worthwhile, with a second half at least equally energetic. It’s only a bit of a shame that the crowd didn’t have room to expend some of their own energy in dancing. Beyond that quibble, the men of Preservation Hall went beyond their name by indubitably enlivening the sound they preserve.