During the first five minutes of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s performance on Thursday, Nov. 6th, it was obvious that Duke Performances and The Carolina Theatre of Durham had hit a good ol’ American home run by scheduling the Oh Yeah! Tour, starring Allen Toussaint and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s. The musicians stroll onto the stage one by one, beginning to play before they reach their seats, as if bringing a bit of the New Orleans brass parade tradition to Durham.
In black suits and ties, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band — founded in 1961 by Allan and Sandra Jaffe — exudes the best of the art form called jazz and the confidence of musicians who have played for international audiences, audiences which often include residents of the Ninth Ward or the royals from some of the most recognizable families in the world. The best part of Toussaint and the Band, however, is that they bring the best of what they have to the stage with every single performance. They enjoy their music and each other, and that’s the best that the Crescent City has offered to both America and the world.
“Jump and Shout” opens the show with Ronell Johnson on the tuba, Mark Braud on trumpet and vocals, Charlie Gabriel on clarinet and vocals, Ben Jaffe on bass, Joe Lastie Jr. on drums, Freddie Lonzo on trombone, Clint Maedgen on saxophone, and Rickie Monie on piano. Mark Braud’s trumpet leads the rest of the band in a rousing beginning to a positive and uplifting set. Ronell Johnson’s tuba roams from side to side on the stage, evoking the movement of both the music and the New Orleans street music tradition. Everyone in the audience nods their heads in appreciation of the energy and bounce.
Charlie Gabriel takes over in the second song, singing and playing sax on “Come with Me to New Orleans.” His velvety crooning underlines his long musical heritage which stretches back to the 1850s. His great-grandfather, Narcesse Gabriel, was a bass player; New Orleans cornet player Martin Joseph was Gabriel’s grandfather; and, to top off this amazing history, Martin Manuel Gabriel, drummer and clarinetist, is Gabriel’s father. Gabriel, truly a legend himself, represents the silver set at 81 years old.
Tuba player Ronell Johnson takes on the next tune both playing tuba and singing. Then it’s slide trombone with Freddie Lonzo, some drums with Joe Lastie and Souza phone by Clint Maedgen, and Mark Braud on the trumpet. The song leads in to the introduction of the icon leading this band: Allen Toussaint.
Toussaint, a 76-year-old white-haired songwriter and producer whose funky and adept piano playing thrills the audience even after more than 50 years in the business, arrives on stage in a sequined jacket that could have been part of Liberace’s wardrobe. Every adjective possible can be used to describe Toussaint’s playing and singing. He croons, growls, booms, rumbles, and brings his distinct piano to the theater through the songs he’s written and produced and through his signature piano playing.
The story of America’s music comes alive as he explores life in New Orleans post-Katrina, playing a montage of music that includes ingredients of who he is, and by and large, provides a musical picture of what his music is. It’s a lot of basics, but complicated by what makes jazz American. His piano plunks a bit of blues, swings into jazz, pounds out some rock, plinks some honky tonk, struts a little Broadway, some classical, moves us into church, gives us some gospel. He creates a patchwork quilt of music that is not poignant but rather celebratory of America and representative of what has made New Orleans the musical voice of America. One of the reasons the devastation of New Orleans affected the United States so profoundly is because that hurricane temporarily silenced the celebration that always has been New Orleans, the native son of the amalgamation of America’s heritage.
With the next song, the rest of the band comes back on stage and the band’s personality comes alive through the music for the rest of the performance. There is no doubt that each member of the band is not only in control of his musical instrument but also in complete control of his vocal instrument. Mark Braud’s solo on “St James Infirmary Blues” is nothing short of amazing. It is soul, blues, and jazz, and all phenomenal. The song’s refrain moves into a different sound — snappier and jazzier — when Clint Maedgen literally growls the song, mesmerizing the audience and serves as a powerful intro to Charlie Gabriel’s clear and pretty clarinet.
Two curtain calls after the show, the audience at The Carolina Theatre didn’t want to leave. As the band filed off stage, it was obvious that Allen Toussaint’s ability to span the generations with both his writing (with hits like “I Like It Like That,” “A Certain Girl,” “Workin’ in the Coal Mine,” and “Southern Nights”); and his producing has established him as an American musical legend — and for that reason, and many more, the show is a star in the crown of the collaboration between Duke Performances and The Carolina Theatre of Durham.
Allen Toussaint & the Preservation Hall Jazz Band: OH YEAH! TOUR (Duke Performances and The Carolina Theatre of Durham, Nov. 6 in Fletcher Hall at The Carolina Theatre).
SHOW: http://dukeperformances.duke.edu/calendar/allen-toussaint-preservation-hall-jazz-band and http://www.carolinatheatre.org/events/allen-toussaint-preservation-hall-jazz-band.
Duke Performances: http://dukeperformances.duke.edu/, https://www.facebook.com/dukeperformances, and https://twitter.com/DukePerformance.
The Carolina Theatre: http://www.carolinatheatre.org/, https://www.facebook.com/CarolinaTheatreDurham, and https://twitter.com/CarolinaDurham.
CAROLINA THEATRE BLOG: http://www.carolinatheatre.org/blog.
Allen Toussaint (76-year-old New Orleans, LA vocalist, pianist, and composer): http://allentoussaint.com/ (official website), https://www.facebook.com/AllenToussaint (Facebook page), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allen_Toussaint (Wikipedia).
Preservation Hall Jazz Band (51-year-old New Orleans, LA band): http://www.preservationhalljazzband.com/ (official website), https://www.facebook.com/preservationhalljazzband (Facebook page), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preservation_Hall_Jazz_Band (Wikipedia).
Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater reviews. She is also Dean of General Education and Developmental Studies at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, where she oversees the theater program at the Kirby Cultural Arts Complex, and a member of the Person County Arts Council. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/. To read more of her writings, click http://dawnrenolangley.com/.