Under Ben Jaffe’s leadership, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has spent much of the past decade redrawing the boundaries of traditional New Orleans jazz. Four years ago, the band released That’s It!, its first ever all-original recording. Rooted in concepts true to the form of the music PHJB was created to sustain half a century earlier, That’s It! energized and modernized the band’s sound without delving too far outside of New Orleans music traditions. The group’s second all-original recording, So It Is—much of which was written by Jaffe and clarinetist and saxophonist Charlie Gabriel and inspired by the band’s 2015 trip to Cuba—takes a different tack.
Across seven vibrant, often hard-swinging, up-tempo tracks, PHJB explores different iterations of the Afro-Cuban clave rhythm that’s central to jazz traditions in both Cuba and New Orleans. Bop concepts figure prominently here, too, particularly on this title track and in Gabriel’s and pianist Kyle Roussel’s contributions.
Two of the album’s highlights build on a similar kind of energy as the propulsive “That’s It!” “Santiago,” with its urgent horn line, and the fiery “La Malanga,” which benefits from Ronell Johnson’s sustained trombone growls, both capture the “visceral,” ultra-“alive” sound the album’s co-producer, Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio, has said he was aiming for. The combination of eerie grooves and triumphant horn refrains on “Innocence,” along with the extended elegant melody on “Convergence,” make those tracks standouts well.
The album comes to a close in more familiar territory with the lighthearted “Mad,” perhaps the closest song, DNA-wise, to a traditional New Orleans jazz number. Jaffe eschews his upright bass for tuba here as the whole band chimes in on vocals. Between the buoyant rhythm and whimsical group singalong vibe, “Mad” would feel just as at-home on the streets of Havana as it would in a second line parade in the Crescent City.