Take Five: Preservation Hall Jazz Band Goes to Cuba, and Anthony Braxton Meets Nels Cline

Jun 23, 2019

Plus: new music by Nature Work, ¿Que Vola? and Melissa Gardiner.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band, “Keep Your Head Up”

A Tuba to Cuba, a colorful feature-length documentary released earlier this year, chronicles the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s 2015 trip from New Orleans to Cuba — a goodwill tour that doubled as a reunion between cultures that were in fruitful dialogue before politics got in the way. The film, directed by T.G. Herrington and Danny Clinch, is a visual feast set at a leisurely pace, but it can also be understood as a sturdy vehicle for some seriously soulful music.

That music, and more, has now yielded a lively soundtrack by the same name. A Tuba to Cuba, releasing this Friday on Sub Pop, features material captured in the film as well as some pieces inspired by the experience, and recorded after the fact.

“Keep Your Head Up” is one of the tunes that appears in the film, as part of a climactic performance at Teatro Tomás Terry in Cienfuegos, about 160 miles southeast of Havana. The song builds on a chant by drummer Walter Harris, who has some of the most emotional scenes in the film; it also features a guest turn by Eme Alfonso, a Cuban singer-songwriter of growing international renown.

The heartbeat of the tune, melding with Harris’ second-line beat, is the syncopated low-end groove of Ben Jaffe’s tuba — an instrument that assumes totemic qualities in the film. But the larger point of “Keep Your Head Up,” which extends to the whole of A Tuba to Cuba, is a spirit of oneness between New Orleans and Cuban musics. It’s a union at the root, but also capable of yielding new branches.

¿Que Vola?, “Iyesa”

Speaking of Cuba and convergence: ¿Que Vola? is another binational collaboration that emerged out of a fateful pilgrimage. Fidel Fourneyron — a French trombonist named after a certain Castro — traveled to Cuba in 2012, in search of musical enlightenment. He quickly connected with a trio of percussionists, all members of the folkloric rumba group Osain del Monte Orchestra. Their rapport eventually led to the formation of ¿Que Vola? (the phrase is a salutation akin to “What’s up?”), and an album issued on the French label No Format! earlier this year.

On “Iyesa,” Benjamin Dousteyssier’s alto saxophone makes the first impression, over a percussive churn. The other horns — trombone, trumpet, tenor saxophone — come in from behind, eventually joined by Thibaud Soulas on bass, Bruno Ruder on Fender Rhodes, and Elie Duris on drums. The full ensemble — including those percussionists, Adonis Panter Calderón, Ramón Tamayo Martinez and Barbaro Crespo Richard — will be on hand for a free performance on Thursday night in the David Rubinstein Atrium at Lincoln Center, part of the France Rocks Festival. They’ll also play late-night at Dizzy’s Club, Thursday through Saturday.

Anthony Braxton Quartet, “Improvisation 4 (Excerpt)”

Conversation around the indomitable multi-reedist Anthony Braxton has lately placed his work in the same orbit as maximalist composers like Wagner and Stockhausen. (This, at least, was the framework with which Seth Colter Walls addressed Braxton’s work, in an excellent recent profile for The New York Times.) So it’s a welcome surprise to see that Braxton’s new 4-CD set, Quartet (New Haven) 2014, bears dedications to some heroes of less formal pedigree: respectively, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, James Brown and Merle Haggard.

As the title implies, Braxton recorded Quartet (New Haven) 2014 five years ago, at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, Conn. Along with his trusted lieutenant Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet (plus flugelhorn, piccolo and bass trumpets, and trumpbone), Braxton enlisted two first-time collaborators: guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Greg Saunier. That each is known partly for his work with a category-exploding rock band — Saunier in Deerhoof, Cline in Wilco — makes the rock and country dedications that much more intuitive. This exclusive nine-minute excerpt of “Improvisation Four (For guitarist/composer Merle Haggard)” contains several waves of expansion and contraction, in pure freeform collectivism. (Be sure to stick around long enough for the inspired drone that Cline brings in at 8:00.)

Quartet (New Haven) 2014 is available on Firehouse 12 Records.

Nature Work, “Tah Dazzle”

Alto saxophonist Greg Ward and bass clarinetist Jason Stein are anchors of the contemporary scene in Chicago, where they’ve often crossed paths. (Both were members of Mike Reed’s Flesh and Bone, the subject of a recent episode of Jazz Night in America.) A couple of years ago, they cofounded a band called Nature Work, with a heavyweight rhythm team: Eric Revis on bass, Jim Black on drums.


The group has an arresting, self-titled album just out on Sunnyside, with Stein and Ward each contributing half the compositions. “Tah Dazzle,” one of Ward’s, is a fine showcase for their coordinated frontline attack, with a tightly coiled melodic line. Revis and Black sound like they’re having a blast, and the solos — Ward first, then Stein — are dynamic, ecstatic and spry.

Melissa Gardiner, “Mask (feat. Tia Fuller)”

Melissa Gardiner is a jazz trombonist of impeccable training — in the master’s program at Juilliard, she studied with Steve Turre — but she has made a point of branching out into other areas. Her new album, Empowered, features her not only on trombone but also on vocals, often in a smooth crossover vein. Such is the case on “Mask,” one of a few tracks to feature Tia Fuller on saxophone.

The tune, a slow-rolling groove fantasia, is a showcase for Fuller, who solos with mournful feeling over lyrics of defensive exhortation. (“Put on your mask / Don’t let them see you”) Gardiner, who also takes a brief trombone solo, is working at the helm of her MG3, a trio with drummer Byron Cage and one of several organists. The MG3 will play an album-release show on July 3 at the Loft at City Winery, with another of the album’s featured guests, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen.