Preservation Hall Jazz Band are one of the city’s oldest institutions, formed in the early sixties with the express purpose of keeping old jazz alive, right at the time when such a notion couldn’t have been more unhip. But they’ve remained active, as both a band and a building, ever since, preaching the tradition of the Armstrong era. I’ve seen them a handful of times, including in their current Bourbon Street home, and figured we were in for a predictable, toe-tapping half hour or so of good old Dixieland music, and the first four or five songs seemed to bear that notion out. No matter how often those old songs get repeated, they’re still a treat to hear when played by masters of the craft.
But the second half of the program, a collaboration with modern dance troupe the Trey McIntyre Project, was shockingly powerful. The first few pieces were fun and upbeat, and worked surprisingly well - skeletons dancing around to “Heebie Jeebies” and that sort of thing. But the fourth piece was a funeral dirge, played at an unearthly slow tempo, and it became evident that the skeletal figures were re-enacting Hurricane Katrina - I saw a flash of a man perched on the roof of his house as another went floating past, after which every image resonated with footage of the disaster. This was followed by dances to a series of old spirituals, some performed with just a voice and a tambourine (which I believe to be by Sister Gertrude Morgan, whose record was released on Preservation Hall Records and has recently has been rediscovered thanks to an update from hip-hop producer King Britt, leading to the use of her "New World In My View" on HBO’s True Blood.)
It was unexpected, audacious and while I can hardly claim to be a modern dance expert, on an emotional level I have to rate that performance as one of the most stunning I’ve seen all year. It’s impressive that current leader Ben Jaffe, son of original founders Allan and Sandra Jaffe, has found a way to do something genuinely modern, so successfully, while continuing to honor the music they were founded on.