“When we learn a song, we play it from here.” At the word “here,” Charlie Gabriel motions to his heart. It is a Tuesday afternoon in early April and Gabriel, the octogenarian saxophonist for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, is explaining over Zoom how musicians from New Orleans learn music, learn to truly inhabit the music and let the music inhabit them. “What the most important thing is … If you don’t know the melody of the song, really know it, then you don’t know the song, see? You have to know the melody and let it become part of who you are.” Musicians of any age should listen well to the word of Gabriel, and his heavenly music.
At 89 years old, Charlie Gabriel—or “Mister Charlie,” as he’s known by fans and admirers the world over—is a living embodiment of the jazz tradition. He’s the fourth of six generations of Gabriel (three before him and two following) to play music in New Orleans. His father, a drummer and a saxophone player, taught his four sons to play different instruments so the family could play hymns on Sundays. Morton and August took up the trumpet; Leonard played trombone; and Charlie and his cousin were taught saxophone. He began attending shows in New Orleans (specifically performances by WPA bands) and playing when he was just seven years old; he played his first gig with the Eureka Brass Band in 1943; roomed with the revered Detroit trumpeter Marcus Belgrave; and shared stages with the likes of Lionel Hampton, Aretha Franklin, and Tony Bennett.
The history he embodies is so much more than his résumé. Ask Preservation Hall’s leader Ben Jaffe, and he’ll tell you that Gabriel has committed an extraordinary amount of jazz history to his memory. “This is what’s amazing, man, to me,” Jaffe says on the same Zoom call. “I can put on Coleman Hawkins; I can put on Ben Webster; I can put on Lester Young; and Charlie knows every note of every solo of every song. He’s probably one of the last living musicians who knew those people and knows their sound. You almost have to be an expert or a historian today to know the difference between them, and to Charlie … as soon as he hears them, he’s humming along to the song.”
“I was trying to keep my ear to what they were doing,” Gabriel exclaims, “so I can try to do those things!”
Jaffe’s references to those three tenor giants of the 1930s and ’40s are well made, considering how deeply their sounds are felt in Eighty Nine (Sub Pop), Gabriel’s new album and—amazingly—the first to be put out under his own name as bandleader. Those familiar with his work over the past 15 years in Preservation Hall’s funky, bouncing traditional New Orleans collective will find little trace of that style here. Gabriel’s music on Eighty Nine bears much more resemblance, sonically, to the Blanton-Webster era of Duke Ellington’s band and, with its simple support team of bass (Jaffe) and guitar (Joshua Starkman), the Nat King Cole Trio.
“That trio sound has always been a part of what I like, because you can hear everything,” Gabriel explains. “The bass player holds the foundation. He holds a rhythm … and the chord progression. The guitar player plays in place of the piano. … And the horn is just the melody. It’s most beautiful: You got everything you need. What else do you need?” It’s easy to understand Gabriel’s essentialism when you listen to the eight tracks on Eighty Nine, six standards and two originals that sound like they were written into the Great American Songbook decades ago.
The album came about after Gabriel’s brother Leonard passed away from complications due to COVID-19. After eight decades of playing, Mister Charlie put away his horn for a bit while he grieved. Weeks passed. Then one day, while he was playing chess with Jaffe in the Preservation Hall kitchen, he heard Starkman shedding in a corner. Something in the guitarist’s practice routine inspired Mister Charlie, and the two began messing around. The album captures that quintessential facet of New Orleans music and musicians: While the performances were mostly spontaneous, they reflect such a deep study and dedication to the craft that the arrangements sound tight and polished. Just listen to the way the three musicians interact on the opening track “Memories of You,” which features Gabriel on clarinet. The trio floats in on a spring breeze, Jaffe strolling at ease as Gabriel makes the melody absolutely sing and Starkman lays out the chord progression with a jovial strut.
“When I went back and was listening to the songs,” Jaffe says, “I realized what I was listening to is what I get to hear all the time, and that’s Charlie in a very pure state. You get to hear the beauty of his horn and the beauty of his notes without anything distracting from it.”