Traditional Jazz Meets Modern Dance
Louisville’s historic Brown Theatre was the perfect setting for the classic New Orleans jazz of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (PHJB), coupled with the contemporary dance of the Trey McIntyre Project (TMP). The band is celebrating its 50th anniversary not only with retrospective and live album releases, but also by moving forward and integrating its repertoire with many collaborators. Over the course of the Dec. 8 performance, the PHJB played two mini-sets, each preceding extended works with the TMP. The band is led by tuba player Ben Jaffe, who bobbed, danced and held down the low end throughout the night.
The curtains parted to reveal the band on a short riser, with musicians from different generations blowing their joyous way through the opener, “Bourbon Street Parade.” The PHJB continued its set with “Short Dressed Gal,” sung by the impeccably coiffed saxophonist Clint Maedgen. Elder statesman and clarinetist Charlie Gabriel took over vocal duties for “My Sweet Substitute,” which was followed by one more instrumental.
The dancers, who wore skull masks, joined the band to perform Ma Maison (My House), commissioned by the New Orleans Ballet Association. Their colorful costumes were evocative of Mardi Gras, ranging from tutus to tuxedos to harlequins, with motifs of gold, green and purple. The music for the first segment sounded like a field recording of a gospel singer, with the dancers swooping and leaping to the rhythm, rather than acting out the lyrics. The PHJB then played a song long associated with Louis Armstrong, “Heebie Jeebies,” as the troupe’s movements evoked the Fleischer brothers’ “Betty Boop” cartoons and Walt Disney’s “The Skeleton Dance.” More of the gospel recording followed, a version of “John The Revelator,” then a dirge by the PHJB, followed by more of the back-and-forth musical segments. The TMP did not just recreate the New Orleans march to the cemetery and the exuberant second line return, but deftly blended the traditional movements of the mourners and celebrants with the sinuous physicality of modern dance.
After an intermission, the band and dancers returned for a newer collaborative piece, The Sweeter End. As in the first portion of the show, the PHJB opened by itself, with a slow blues performed under dim lights. After one more tune, the dancers returned. Gone were the skulls and Mardi Gras-themed outfits. The wardrobe for this work included stylistic elements of early 20th century ragamuffins, more recent street attire, plus one flapper and one gent in a straw boater. The mood was set as one dancer spray-painted an X on the backs of three others. The band then played an extended arrangement of “St. James Infirmary” at an almost impossibly slow tempo. The tension mounted as the dancers executed their parts to the doleful music. Trumpeter Mark Braud soulfully sang the familiar lyrics. As a different group of dancers took the stage, the band took flight with a revved-up version of the same tune, this time with Maedgen providing the vocals. “Trouble In Mind” featured a dancer with a huge prop resembling a hybrid umbrella and Christian cross. Two more pieces brought back the TMP for uptempo workouts with the PHJB, and the two ensembles sent the enthusiastic crowd home cheering with a rousing and extended version of “That’s A Plenty,” a barnburner from the early days of jazz.
In recent interviews, Jaffe has stressed the importance of coordinating music and dance, and the challenge for the improvising musicians to not throw off the choreography. By the end of the night, it was clear that the challenge had been met.
—Martin Z. Kasdan Jr.