SAN FRANCISCO — The legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band kicked off a four-night, five-show stand at SFJAZZ’s Miner Auditorium Thursday evening with a two-set performance that emphasized the band’s connection to San Francisco as well as its familial legacy.
Bassist Ben Jaffe (son of the band’s founders Allan and Sandra Jaffe), saxophonist Clint Maedgen, trombonist Ronell Johnson, drummer Walter Harris, pianist Kyle Roussel and trumpeter Branden Lewis tore through a sometimes blistering and sometimes easy-go-lucky performance.
The band, which was awarded SFJAZZ’s lifetime achievement award several years ago—the only institution to get the honor—opened with “The Band’s In Town,” off its 2011 record, American Legacies. The band recorded the record in San Francisco with Americana artist Del McCoury Band.
Johnson took turns introducing his bandmates, and each one soloed. About seven minutes in, with the introductions over, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band picked up the pace and the volume, with each member in-sync with the group as a whole and firing on all cylinders.
Later in the first set, Jaffe told a story about how the band recorded the 2011 album in secret after flying to San Francisco and recording in an old church.
The mid-tempo Latin-tinged “Tootie Ma” followed, with Johnson’s sultry trombone vibrating warmth. That song was originally recorded in 2010 with Tom Waits for an album benefiting Preservation Hall.
On the slow, leisurely “Make Me A Pallet On The Floor,” which was first recorded by George Lewis at Preservation Hall in 1998, Lewis reached the high notes on his instrument while Johnson’s trombone belched like an 8-bit video game at times. “Sugar Plum,” off 2013’s That’s It!, was led by Jaffe’s swing-danceable bass line, with the brass musicians weaving around each other.
Several times throughout the evening, the band members talked about the history of the band, which is older than any of them. Besides Jaffe, other members also had fathers in Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which was started in the early ’60s.
“Were any of you in the Fillmore in ’69 when the Grateful Dead opened for them?” Johnson said. “It really happened!
The tail end of the first set included a cover of the Pete Seeger standard “If I Had a Hammer,” which the Preservation Hall Jazz Band performed a week prior at the Newport Folk Festival as part of an all-star medley. The song was sparse, with light vocals and bass as well as some keys, and felt like gospel. The set concluded with a song that was probably written as a second-line parade starter; a cacophonous sound of instruments vibrating in harmony, multi-part vocal harmonies and a dueling brass section. The band took a 30-minute break before returning to the stage.
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