For more than 50 years, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has blended the power and mystery of New Orleans jazz into a sound that seemingly blows your hair back and chases away your troubles. They're smooth. They're cool. They're as good as it gets in American artistry.
That aura was on full display at Elkhart'sLerner Theater Friday night, as the PHJB helped kick off the 27th Annual Elkhart Jazz Festival, with a two-hour performance that infused the massive hall with the charmed and ambitious notes of New Orleans' signature sound.
The only negative in sight was the large number of empty seats in the theater, missed opportunities to experience the grip and culture of America's music.
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band traces its roots back to names that include, Punch Miller, Sweet Emma Barrett and The Humphrey Brothers. The current roster of artists are among some of the most respected musicians in the business, and it was clear why on Friday.
Ben Jaffe, the band's creative director, held things together on bass. While introducing the band just before an intermission, he told the audience that several members of the band lost their homes and instruments to Hurricane Katrina back in 2005. They came to Elkhart to replace those instruments.
Rickie Monie, in his white-rimmed glasses was masterful on the piano. Clint Maedgen's saxophone play was moving and heartfelt. Freddie Lonzo was a pure entertainer on trombone, gyrating to his deep notes of his horn to the delight of the crowd. Mark Braud on trumpet is so elegant that each time he rises from his chair for a solo you just know something special is about to happen. At times Joseph Lastie Jr. looked like he was about to fall asleep behind his drum kit, only to come to life with an understated vengeance more akin to witchcraft than percussion; the sound was that amazing. And Ronell Johnson was the ultimate showman as he bounced around the entire show with the famed Preservation Hall sousaphone hugging his upper torso.
I first learned of the PHJB a few years back while channel surfing. I caught the end of a Steve Miller Band reunion concert on PBS. Next on stage was Preservation Hall and they made Steve Miller seem like a lounge act. Maedgen led the band into a version of "I'll Fly Away" that would have stood up fine on its own, but was taken to a new level when The Del McCoury Band joined in a couple verses later.
I was hooked.
Two years ago we took a family trip to New Orleans. This is where you need to see the PHJB. While the show at the Lerner Friday was a classic performance in beautiful venue, it was no match for the intimate Preservation Hall at 726 St. Peters St. in the heart of the French Quarter. Inside that tiny dwelling, the might and sound of the band hits you like a slap in the face, smacking you sober. It truly rattles you when they play "Rattlin' Bones" and your soul quivers. And when lurch into "Saints" -- It will cost you $20 in the spittoon first -- you simply don't want it to end.
We stood in line three times during that vacation to see the PHJB and each show was better than the one before.
I honestly believe that music makes life better and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has me feeling like a million bucks every time I hear them.
Michael Wanbaugh has been managing editor at The Goshen News since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @MWanbaugh
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