How Preservation Hall Jazz Band Found Their New Sound in Cuba

Walter Harris is a drummer and a man of faith from New Orleans, a place where those two aspects of his identity could never be separate. He grew up in the Spiritual church, which synthesizes Catholicism with elements of African and Caribbean religion and whose worship services included plenty of music. As a member of the Hard Head Hunters, based out of the lower Ninth Ward, Harris also masked as a Mardi Gras Indian, taking to the streets before daybreak on Carnival day decked out in bright feathers and elaborate beadwork to drum and shout. When he went to Cuba for the first time in 2015, as a new member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, he met an unexpected counterpart.

“Coming from a family that was intensively spiritual, I was seeking to find out a little more about what’s going on with that aspect of Cuba, in relation to the music and the drumming,” Harris tells Rolling Stone. Anchoring their trip around the Havana Jazz Festival, the band also plotted out a visit to the city of Santiago – whose name they wound up borrowing for the funky first single from their new Dave Sitek–produced LP So It Is – and set aside time to ramble around the country meeting other artists and musicians. In one small village, Harris talked to a drummer, Luis, “who was very much in touch with his spirituality and the history of his people,” he says.

“He brought us to this shrine they’d been having in the family for a long time, and was explaining the intent of the shrine, and it was being translated through a guy in English – but the experience was so intense that it felt like I understood exactly what he was saying before it was translated. It was a very emotional time we had, in that moment.”

Harris, who had joined the band only a month before the trip, turned out to be a true engine of the album, which thunders with insistent, ferocious Afro-Cuban rhythms.

“It’s so fresh and exciting and vibrant, and it’s so reverent. You can hear the entire history of New Orleans drumming in his playing,” says Ben Jaffe, the sousaphone and bass player who serves as the Hall’s creative director.

“I mean, I’ve known for a while that that’s where the band has been heading. There’s hints of it on That’s It,” Jaffe says of the group’s booming, swinging 2013 release. “You can start to hear us exploring this very important side of our music. It’s sort of putting rhythm in the forefront.”

Musically speaking, there isn’t a huge language barrier between Cuba and New Orleans. The building blocks of son, rumba and habanera are also unmistakably audible in New Orleans funk and jazz, and particularly in the city’s famed second-line parade beat. When Jelly Roll Morton told Alan Lomax that New Orleans music had the “Spanish tinge,” during their landmark 1938 recordings for the Library of Congress, he was referring to the Afro-Cuban rhythms that made their way to New Orleans via the transatlantic slave trade, and asserted themselves in the city’s music from Morton’s Storyville stomp and boogie to 21st-century bounce music. 

Jaffe didn’t plan the group’s trek to Cuba as a research trip for their new album. But once they were there, he said, it became clear that Cuba – so much a part of where the band’s sound comes from – was also key to where they were going.

“It’s kind of like it had been pulling us,” Jaffe says. “I mean, we had spent time in Brazil, but had never had the opportunity to spend time in some of these other environments that you can actually physically see and taste and smell a lot of the same history that made its way to New Orleans.

“It just became really clear that part of our discovery of ourselves as a band was discovering Cuba,” he says.

Discovering who Preservation Hall is has, in its way, been Jaffe’s task since he took over the group in 1995, shortly after graduating from Oberlin. In 1961, when his parents took its helm, the Hall itself – a narrow 19th-century building with a dim, stone-paved carriageway opening into a lush French Quarter courtyard – was a bohemian art gallery that drew an integrated crowd of young beatniks, artists and old-record nerds, in defiance of Jim Crow laws, to pass the hat for aging musicians who literally remembered the birth of jazz. The venue still hosts three sets a night of traditional jazz played by the core Preservation Hall Jazz Band (the personnel on So It Is) or, when they’re on the road, combos formed from its broad roster of associated players.

But the spot was never meant to be a museum, and neither was the band. So during the past 20 years, Ben Jaffe and his crew have walked a cautious line between hallowed heritage and innovation. They play Bonnaroo and Coachella. They throw midnight shows at the Hall, playing with artists like Neko Case, Elvis Costello and Shovels and Rope, and record with Jason Isbell, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Tom Waits and others. Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, who have a house in New Orleans, partnered up with Preservation Hall to put on a memorial parade for David Bowie in early 2016. Dave Grohl shot an episode of his Sonic Highways miniseries at the Hall in 2014, and reconnected with the group during an April appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, sitting in on the drums for “Santiago.”

Over the years, members of the main ensemble have retired or passed on, and their replacements have different musical foundations than their forebears. “We’re not going to be able to pretend that James Brown isn’t a part of us now, or hip-hop,” says Clint Maedgen, a sax and clarinet player who both studied with famed avant-garde jazz clarinetist Alvin Batiste and fronted several Nineties and early-2000s-era punk bands in New Orleans. Now in his late 40s, when Maedgen joined the band in 2003 he was one of its youngest members. Among the So It Is band, he’s practically an elder statesman (along with 84-year-old fellow reed player Charlie Gabriel, that is, who has writing credits on six of of the album’s seven tracks.)

“The band that recorded the album is the youngest incarnation of the Preservation Hall Band, and that’s beautiful,” Jaffe says.

Jaffe met Dave Sitek through mutual friends in Los Angeles. “We walked in, and it was immediately, ‘OK, we’re brothers, we just hadn’t met yet,'” says Jaffe. During that first meeting, the pair wrote a song together. The next time they hung out, he brought Gabriel and Maedgen, and the men all wrote another.

“So there was just this energy there,” he said. “When we were thinking about producers for this album, Dave was always somebody in my mind. And Dave was able to do something with us that we really needed at this moment in time. We needed a producer to come in and allow us to be the musicians that we are and the band that we could be. To me, that’s what Dave challenged us to be.”

“I didn’t want to be the guy that fucked up the Preservation Hall.” –Dave Sitek

“Originally, my excitement was masked as hesitation. I didn’t want to be the guy that fucked up the Preservation Hall,” Sitek says. “Then, when I found out how actually wild they are, that was reassuring.” One day during his five-week stay in New Orleans, he took an afternoon walk with Jaffe, and the pair ran smack into a second line, one of the city’s raucous street parades.

“I was like, ‘Oh, that’s where all the guys in this band come from,'” he says. “It was very visceral, and very present, and right there. Up until that point I was like, ‘I might be trying to make them too dangerous or something.’ Then I realized, they’re already that. They already have that vibe.

“I was like, how do I make the room sound like a parade?” he continues. “Jazz is famous for being meticulous about stuff, especially the recording. Everything’s isolated so you can control each sound and I have zero interest in that. I was like, ‘I’m going to record this like it’s X-Ray Spex or something.'”

Sitek took the band to Sonic Ranch studio in El Paso (“There’s so much New Orleans in these guys, you can’t take it out of them, even if you took them to outer space,” he said) and set them up to record live in the round, so they could build off of each other’s energy in real time. The end result is dynamic and urgent, with a tension and vitality that feels like it throws off sparks, from the menacing trombone growl on the hip-shaker “La Malanga” to the slow-burning “One Hundred Fires,” which juxtaposes snaky, slinky horns with slick soul-jazz organ. The aptly named “Convergence,” which credits all seven band members and Sitek as writers, is where all the moving parts come together: New Orleans piano rolls; clattering tambourine and cowbell; a popping shuffle beat; and joyous, meandering horns. Like the album as a whole, the track fuses old Cuba and new New Orleans, updating each city’s legacy with fresh perspectives and fresh blood.

“It’s just like a fire-starter kind of energy,” Clint Maedgen says. “Let’s see how we can push it, and what attention we can get out there in the universe. Let’s shine a really bright light, in maybe a little bit of a different way.”

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