Thursday May 17, 2012

RIDGEFIELD, Conn. -- The name of the band lends a strong sense of its mission, but Preservation Hall Jazz Band is about more than preserving a bygone musical style.

The long-running New Orleans ensemble seeks to play top-notch jazz in the old style while remaining open to fresh influences.

Originally the house band of Pres ervation Hall -- a humble music hall founded by Allan and Sandra Jaffe in 1961 in New Orleans' French Quar ter as a venue for musicians who had helped create the distinct New Orleans jazz sound in the early years of the 20th century -- the group has seen many lineup changes. But it has preserved a local roster of members deeply steeped in the history of early jazz and its later adherents.

"New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz, and all of the musicians in our band have bloodlines that connect back to the earliest days of New Orleans jazz. We have a lot of responsibility to protect the traditions that we all grew up with, and the people whose chairs we now sit in," explained tuba player Ben Jaffe, who took over artistic leadership of the group from his parents in 1993 at the age of 22.

"The people who had our roles 50 years ago were the founders of New Orleans jazz. They're some of the most important musicians in the world. That's a huge responsibility. Yet each of us feels a responsibility to leave our own imprint on the tradition," he added.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band plays the Ridgefield Playhouse in Ridge field, Conn., on Sunday at 8 p.m.

Though traditional early-jazz tunes (like "Basin Street Blues" and traditional closing number "When The Saints Go Marching In") carry any Preservation Hall performance, the group has gone so far as to arrange a rock song by the Kinks in recent years.

The younger Jaffe has guided the band toward collaborations with artists in a range of musical genres, notably cutting a well-received album with bluegrass legend Del McCoury and his band in 2011. A post-Hurricane Katrina album to benefit the Preservation Hall venue, which was closed for eight months due to hurricane damage, included guest spots from artists ranging from indie songwriter Andrew Bird to Ani DiFranco and Pete Seeger.

"I've seen it happen in other situations where people preserve something and it becomes a mummy. In New Orleans, our music traditions here are still living and breathing. We've not trying to recreate something from a hundred years ago," Jaffe said.

He said the nature of New Orleans culture, as well as the elastic possibilities within jazz itself, make for fertile collaborative opportunities.

"People embrace life in a bigger way down here. I think that lends itself to collaborations because they require a certain amount of openness that not every musician or community possesses. You have to go into a collaboration with an open mind and an open heart. I think that's why our collaborations are so successful. Also. we spend a lot of time thinking, does it make sense historically? Is there a connection between us and the artist we're performing with? That's part of the creative process."

As he spoke, Jaffe was running on fumes after an exhilarating week at the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest ival, where Preservation Hall was celebrated for its 50th anniversary. The group played its usual set in the tent reserved for traditional jazz, and later in the week took the main stage to close the festival. Their set opened with a rare musical performance by George Wein, the 86-year old founder of the New Orleans festival as well as the Newport Jazz Festival. Wein played piano on the band's opening number.

"What a great way to celebrate: at the Jazzfest, something that really has come to symbolize New Orleans music and New Orleans culture. It was an incredibly heartwarming show, not just for the band but the entire audience," Jaffe raved. "I don't know how to even really describe the feeling of being out there in front of a family of tens of thousands of people, performing. It was really beautiful."

He said after the festival closed he found himself playing in a late-night set at Pres ervation Hall with roots rocker Steve Earle. Somehow, it all made sense.