I have to confess that, after having listened to music on a daily basis (first as a fan, then as a critic and a fan), I have grown cynical and hypercritical toward jazz. The reason for that is pretty simple: I believe that jazz was once a cutting edge form which pushed the possibilities of time, rhythm, meter, intonation, presence, style and innumerable other compositional keystones but, at some point, the genre’s fans grew rigid and outspoken regarding what was and was not permissible as the proverbial tape rolled.
The number of artists that fans were willing to accept were doing something new and different became very small (you know the list, reader – there’s no reason to reprint it here) and the by-product of that narrow view saw the music which was getting released become very same-y. Artists like Miles Davis and Charles Mingus were seen as “the real deal” even decades after new music stopped coming from them, while acts like Combustible Edison were viewed as light and disposable fare which was undeserving of “real attention” from “real jazz heads.”
That’s how it has been for decades now, and it hasn’t helped to fertilize the creative soil on which the genre rests one iota. Even now, in the twenty-first century, critics idolize Davis and Mingus and Parker, and treat new acts coming up like Johnny-come-latelies who haven’t yet been around long enough to have anything valid to contribute. With the release of So It Is though, Preservation Hall Jazz Band (who has been around with a rotating cast of players for over fifty years) stands poised to finally shatter the jazz genre’s glass ceiling and get some new breath into the music using some classic ideas.
As soon as stylus touches vinyl and the A-side of So It Is begins to play, listeners will find themselves completely bowled over by how completely different the album’s title track feels from jazz’s long-established norm. With equal amounts of Dixieland and Cuban jazz characterizing the sound, the nine-piece behemoth just launches itself brightly and tightly right up into listeners’ collective face. There is no coy methodology at work here, nor is there any ridiculous, “cool” extended introduction – everything just appears quickly a dn gets to work. Even on first listen, no one will be able to deny that what Preservation Hall Jazz Band is pushing around is refreshing to hear.
After “So It Is” instantly sets this album apart from pretty much all the other jazz that the last couple of generations of listeners have heard, the band keeps pushing with “Santiago” rather than laying up to let everyone catch their breath and totally wins the last of those listening who might have been holding out. There, brilliant performances by drummer Walter Harris and trumpet players Branden Lewis and Stephen Lands play perfect counterparts behind Ronell Jackson’s garish and gorgeous performance (even the first listen says it all – Jackson defies modern jazz convention and literally splatters sound in every available corner of the song’s mix) and stand in fantastic opposition to the “clean, clinical governing dynamic of most modern jazz compositions. Calling “Santiago” doesn’t even begin to do the song justice – it needs to be heard to be believed.
Now, contrary to the statements above, So It Is does occasionally lay up – if only to let listeners catch their breath – but even those moments are far from boring. Take “Innocence,” for example; while the song is far more “typical” for jazz (performances by keyboardist Kyl Rousell and clarinet player Charlie Gabriel are showcased, but they’re not as adventurous as one might hope), it still plays well into the Dixie pocket and makes the run-off for the A-side really attractive for flipping the side over. It’s a solid place to end the side (which speaks volumes toward the discipline of the band) and leaves listeners truly wanting more.
When they’ve started fresh on the B-side, listeners will find more goodness and heat in keeping with its counterpart. “La Melanga” gets the side moving to open with the strongest Cuban influence on the album (the sax stands centerstage and plays syncopated figures beautifully) before “Convergence” presents a phenomenal percussion experiment coupled with huge horns and piano which fades into some more heavy NoLa trombone work through “One Hundred Fires.” At each of those turns, listeners will find themselves having been left guessing excitedly in regards to what might come next, and never feel as though they’ve been let down when the next song begins.
In that same way, after “Mad” blows the doors off of So It Is with a gang vocal combined with a truly hot instrumental performance, those who have gone front-to-back will have received all they need and they know it. Granted, some listeners may have passively hoped that there could still be more music coming somehow, from somewhere, but they’ll know they got what they really needed and asking for more from this album would just be greedy. Really, the seven tracks which comprise So It Is are enough to satiate even the most vocal and hardened jazz fan because they are different and – in a form where fans have been exposed to so much of the same ol’ for so long – that means something. That it’s different is bold and exciting and that the set plays so well just feels brilliant. Go get this album if you want a modern reason to love jazz reader – it stands as proof that such things are still possible. You won’t be sorry.
(Legacy Recordings/Sony Music)
Further listening – as featured in the Sound City documentary (2013):