New Orleans Comes to Bucknell: The Preservation Hall Jazz Band with Allen Toussaint
On Friday, October 17th, Buckell’s Weis Center was dropped into the musical mirth of New Orleans with a visit by The Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Allen Toussaint. The band has been around since the ‘60s, though the members have changed over the years. They are affiliated with Preservation Hall, a jazz venue in New Orleans’ French Quarter. The name is intentional, as the hall was founded when interest in New Orleans jazz was waning in an attempt to preserve the tradition. The band does an excellent job of this, touring the world to show people the uninhibited joy and talent that comes from the far-reaching, multicultural tradition they are representing. The ensemble began as the standard, current PHJB, featuring drum kit, standup bass, sousaphone (tuba), trumpet, trombone, piano, and tenor sax. The band entered gradually, starting with just bass, drums, and sousaphone to lay out the meter and bass line. The ensuing escalation of sound and complexity climaxed in some impressive solos by the brass and saxophones who remained at the front of the stage. Once they were settled into their places they followed a familiar format of exchanging verses and solos, sometimes featuring the same person twice, once as the singer, once as the soloist. That was an impressive display, given the force with which they were expending their breath. It’s amazing they don’t pass out.
[Image source: flickr user wfuv]
Despite the energetic solos up front, my attention was captured by the sousaphone player, Ronell Johnson, who gave new meaning to the term walking bass. While the rest of the band took a seat in between solos, Johnson did not stop walking around the stage even once. He strapped on his instrument, worked the valves with one hand, and strutted about, waving his free arm in time to the music. His jollity was an effective reminder that we, the audience, were doing something wrong. Yes it’s nice to watch them, but to be seated and immobile throughout the show was a musical sin.
Halfway through the night the band welcomed Allen Toussaint to the stage. Toussaint is a multi-talented New Orleans legend. He writes, produces, arranges, and performs, to list a few of his primary engagements. He has an interesting role in the music world because he is not a household name like the Rolling Stones or the Grateful Dead. But those bands and dozens of other artists have covered his innumerable songs. Toussaint used his time on stage to tell us a bit about his story, have some fun with the audience, and show off. It was clear he is an experienced entertainer, perfectly comfortable on stage and immensely talented. During his song “Mr. Mardi Gras” he left the piano to throw beads and masks into the audience. After that, he excused the band to do some solo work and show off his skills as a pianist. Even while he was talking he was simultaneously improvising dexterous riffs. He went off on an 8 minute piano tangent, cramming bits of 30-some contemporary songs and classical pieces into a non-stop string of sound. Humorously, he would intersperse the simple children’s piece “Chopsticks” between his more virtuosic displays.
After showing us the range of his talent he played his timeless hit, “Southern Nights”. He invited the audience to sing along, and we did a pretty good job!
The band returned for a few more songs, once more showing us the fun we were missing out on by not being in New Orleans. Overall it was one of the best shows to come to the Weis Center in my time at Bucknell. As always, I look forward to what else the venue has to offer us.