Concert Review: Preservation Hall Jazz Band Creole Christmas Extravaganza @ Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 11/29/2023

You can take musicians out of New Orleans, but you can’t…well, you know.

The six dapper gents of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, whose touring ensemble is an elastic repertory company taking New Orleans music everywhere, celebrated the holiday season in happy horn-powered Crescent City style Wednesday at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. In that elegant room 12.5 times as large as their humble home venue, they gift-wrapped holiday favorites, both universal and down-home. They also polished familiar and obscure any-time tunes in a show sparkling with individual solo skills and classy cohesion.

Holiday songs erupted in flows of anytime fare, and vice versa.

Trumpeter Aurelien Barnes hosted, introducing the songs and players center stage between trombonist Revon Andrews and tenor saxophonist Clint Maedgen; the rhythm section of drummer Peter Varnado, Sousaphonist and bassist Kerry Lewis and pianist Kyle Roussel played in a parallel line behind the horns. Early on I noticed how Barnes phrased like Louis Armstrong, letting the melodies breathe; but soon realized they all did. Barnes also name-checked his hometown giants and inspirations: and not just Armstrong. Introducing Roussel’s solo piano turn, Barnes cited piano powerhouses Jelly Roll Morton, Professor Longhair, Dr. John and James Booker.

Photo by Rudy Lu

Varnado’s muscular march-beat punched up “Hindustan” to open, all the horns pulsing together then sorting out into solos and Barnes singing the simple words. Next, when Lewis switched from acoustic bass to Sousaphone for “Bourbon Street Parade,” the beat beat harder, with more power, making me wish he’d stayed with the big wrap-around horn all night.

These first two songs would have worked anywhere, anytime, even 76 days ahead of Mardi Gras next February. But then they got seasonal with Charles Brown’s plaintive “Please Come Home for Christmas,” a slow, pathos-drenched plea as Maedgen proved a powerful blues shouter and both Barnes and Andrews held their own.

Playing for laughs, they goofed on both Louis Armstrong’s “‘Zat You, Santa Claus” early on and “O, Christmas Tree” later. Barnes exaggerated Armstrong’s distinctive vocal rasp in “‘Zat” but also played a roof-raising solo. Andrews sang “O, Christmas Tree” in English versus the original German and kept repeating its title as its only lyric until the crowd laughed out loud – then sang it with him. Like Barnes, Andrews raised his aim from the funnybone to the nostalgic strength of the song when he soloed.

“Little Drummer Boy” fell right in the middle between the hijinks of “‘Zat” and goofiness of “O Christmas Tree” and Roussel’s stately piano solo turn on “O Holy Night;” this solemn song sang with elegance and deep expression.

Changing up the mood, they went all serious bluesy after their comic blitz through “O Christmas Tree” in Brown’s “Christmas Comes But Once a Year.” Then the can’t-miss party bounce of “Lil Liza Jane” uncorked a unanimous sing-along.

Whenever Barnes wanted everybody to sing, everybody did. But in addition to entertaining skillfully as host, he also played the hottest solos. However, everybody’s solos packed melodic invention in confident swagger, with clarity amplifying the funk. Even more fun were the breathtaking syncopated conversations when the horns all played full-force, etching notes between each other’s phrases.

Their closer and subsequent encore perfectly summed up what they’re all about: “That’s It!” Is the title track of their 2013 album and the newest song they played. But in its rambunctious melodic glee and effortless-sounding grace, it could well have been their oldest.

Photo by Rudy Lu

Then they went off, then came back to encore with, well, you know, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” As with everything else on Wednesday, they put their own spin on this, with Lewis’s Sousaphone underlining its funky swing.

The Songs:

  • Hindustan
  • Bourbon Street Parade
  • Please Come Home for Christmas
  • ‘Zat You, Santa Claus?
  • Little Drummer Boy
  • Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans
  • O Christmas Tree
  • Christmas Comes But Once a Year
  • Lil’ Liza Jane
  • Bugle Boy March
  • O, Holy Night
  • Walking in a Winter Wonderland
  • That’s It!

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