New Orleans is one of the great cities of the American South, but many also consider it to be the northernmost point of the Caribbean. That influence extends into every aspect of the Big Easy’s culture, from religion to cuisine to music. Maybe that’s why in the film A Tuba to Cuba, a documentary of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s 2015 trip to the island, leader Ben Jaffe said the group came back from Cuba having “discovered a piece of us that’s been missing.” The trad jazz icons’ new album, A Tuba to Cuba, soundtracks that film but also stands as testimony to that beautiful coalescence.
Over the album’s 12 tracks, the Preservation Hall band slip into tumba drum lines and salsa rhythms like they were putting on their own shoes; each member plays as if he’s had decades of experience playing Cuban music. “I Am” (which bridges the gap between ring-shout and street party) and “Kreyol” are raucously swinging affairs in which the horns slink over the rumbling grooves with the enchanting flair of an expert dancer. On “El Manicero,” the band weds the percussiveness of a riverboat band and the boisterousness of Satchmo to one of Cuba’s iconic jazz tunes; the lines between the New Orleans and Havana traditions are at their blurriest here.
Large parts of the album feel like you’re hearing a second line wind through the heart of Santiago. “Keep Your Head Up,” which features the effervescent Eme Alfonso on vocals, is the standout performance in this regard; try not to smile and shimmy while listening. But the parade also runs into more tender vignettes, as in Jaffe’s “Solitude,” and passes by scenes of Yoruba choirs and string ensembles showcasing their musical wisdom. It’s a full portrait of the rhythms, the melodies, the values, and the energy that bind us all.
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