It’s not every day that a place like Santa Barbara gets to experience New Orleans. They’re two cities so vastly different and so far apart that it would seem impossible to bring them together, but that is exactly what the Preservation Hall Jazz Band managed to do on Friday, June 10. Led by the charismatic, explosively-haired Ben Jaffe, the group managed to transport the audience of the Lobero theatre directly to the French Quarter. But this wasn’t a feat accomplished by magic. No, it was instead done by the closest thing to it—jazz.
Leader Jaffe functioned as a sideman for most of the show, standing toward the back of the stage while plucking out notes on his stand-up bass. From this position, however, Jaffe was a resounding constant, his bass holding the ensemble together along with the racing beat of the drums. When he did pick up his gigantic tuba, he began to drop the signature booming, melodic thuds that are inherent to the instrument and the crowd went wild.
Would it really be jazz without a sax? PHJB’s saxophonist/singer Clint Maedgen was in fact a triple threat, tearing it up on an awesome-looking white saxophone, crooning into the mic, and rocking a pencil mustache and slicked-back hairdo that would put screen legend Tom Conway to shame.
Maedgen’s powerful sax was complimented by the wild, energetic trombone playing of Ronell Johnson. Johnson had not only serious skill on his instrument, but also the uncanny ability to completely captivate an audience: he danced across the stage, played the trombone using the ground to push the slide, and even broke out his vocals every once in a while. Even more impressively, he did all of these things with an enormous grin.
These were just three of the six men onstage at the Lobero that night, in addition to a pianist, trumpeter, and drummer, and the PHJB operated like a machine. The shifts from song to song were seamless and elegant, and the energy didn’t fade for a second. Other than Jaffe’s role as band leader, the show made sure that no single member was treated as more important than the others. Each player was given equal time, whether it was to sing, solo, or, more often than not, both (although, of course, not at the same time).
Songs ranged from a meet-and-greet who’s-who of the band to a lively, melancholy piano ballad memorializing those who have passed away in the past year, but the one thing that never changed was the band’s firm hold on the audience’s energy and attention. The theatre vibrated with the music, jazz poured through the ground and permeated the conscious like the best kind of bombardment. It was a bouquet of light, movement and sound, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band managed to seamlessly pass that bouquet like the professionals that they were.
It was a two-set show with an intermission and a lengthy encore, but it flew by as quickly as pianist Rickie Monie’s fingers flew across the keys. Each song seemed to bleed into the next, creating snowball effect that seemed to change the Lobero from an elegant and dimly lit room in Santa Barbara into the Preservation Hall itself at its peak. And it wasn’t just the cheering audience that seemed happy to be there—every member of the band looked like there was nowhere they would rather be than up on that stage, bringing jazz to life.
This event was more than a concert—it was a learning experience, an educational seminar on the pure magic of jazz. We eager students were perched on the edges of our seats, desperate for the next lesson. And whether it was in the form of a rollicking trombone solo, a playful ode to Mardi Gras, or a soulful cry to loved ones lost, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band delivered.