NOLA Memories 

Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Trey McIntyre Project bring a taste of the Big Easy to Boise

Its columns and frescoes, decked in blue, red and gold paint, look new, but the Egyptian Theatre bleeds history. The lingering odor of movie popcorn and plush red seats--not to mention ornamentation evoking the days of the pharaohs--underscore its position as downtown Boise's film and performing arts palace.

It's fitting that The Egyptian is set to host New Orleans' legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band Wednesday, Sept. 11. The band, which has been active since 1963, includes some of the most illustrious performers in the world of New Orleans jazz; but, like the Egyptian Theatre, the cultural significance of PHJB goes far beyond the veneer of venerability.

"I believe that traditions like ours, like our musical tradition, which are vital parts of our community, have to evolve to stay relevant," said PHJB Creative Director Ben Jaffe, who also plays sousaphone and bass.

Jaffe is the son of Allan and Sandra Jaffe, the founders of Preservation Hall, the famed New Orleans jazz venue from which the band draws its name. Though he was born to jazz royalty, Jaffe has been no bratty prince. Since assuming his father's position as director in 1993, he sees "each generation leaving some sort of mark on the tradition" as essential to the band's evolution and continued significance.

That significance is assisted by the band's rigorous touring schedule and hours in the recording studio. Since 2009, PHJB has dropped 11 albums, and the response to That's It!, its most recent release and cause for coming to Boise, has been positive.

"It's been extremely exciting to hear how much everyone's enjoying the new material. We put so much work and time into the project," Jaffe said.

Collaborating with other artists hasn't hurt the band's standing, either. Over the years, PHJB has worked or appeared onstage with The Grateful Dead, Blind Boys of Alabama, Tom Waits, The Black Keys, My Morning Jacket and many more.

But, Jaffe said, some collaborations aren't meant to be: "We follow the creative spirit. You don't do collaboration for collaboration's sake."

When it came to writing tunes to go along with two ballets, Ma Maison (French for "my home") and Sweeter End, by Boise's Trey McIntyre Project, the fit was perfect. The ballets, which PHJB and TMP have been performing since 2008, attempt to capture aspects of New Orleans' soul, like death, revelry and Mardi Gras. The music is nuanced and lively, with effervescent brass sections and tweaked tempos.

For TMP dancers, the ballets are a chance to slip into some of their favorite costumes. Company member Ashley Werhun remembers when she first saw Ma Maison's vestments, designed by Jeanne Button.

"The day that we got the masks sent to us--they were these beautiful skeleton masks," she said.

Werhun recalls many details from those days of collaboration between TMP and PHJB. One instance has stuck in her mind.

"We went to see [PHJB's] show in this really old, decrepit, amazing hall [Preservation Hall], and a hundred people were packed in there sitting on the floor. We were rehearsing with them and Ben [Jaffe] shouted out, 'Our friends from Trey McIntyre Project are here!' and they called for us to get up there. It became an improv jam between musicians and dancers," she said.

Fellow TMP dancer Brett Perry recalls that moment differently:

"The band started to play more upbeat jazz tunes, and one of the dancers was making eye contact with Ben [Jaffe] or Mark [Braud], and they kind of did the nods, like, 'Stand up, come join us!' The crowd went crazy, so we all got up in this tiny room and we were just one at a time improvising our butts off, blitzed out in a way."

It's the minute differences between their stories--who said what when, the character of the improvisation--that are the subject of TMP's upcoming documentary, Ma Maison, a forensic unearthing of the stories behind the TMP-PHJB collaboration. It's also part of the reason a film crew will be recording an improvised TMP performance with the band onstage for a single song at the Egyptian Theatre Sept. 11.

Work on the documentary began after the Ma Maison/The Sweeter End tour in December 2012. McIntyre and digital content specialist for TMP Kyle Morck spent months spitballing ideas for recording the joint effort. The result will be a video meditation on music, dance and memory.

"It's really taking a look at the creative process through the lens of the collaboration between Trey McIntyre Project and Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and delving into the nature of memory and how what we remember about an event could differ from what actually happened. The important piece of it is our memories," Morck said.

Following filming at the Egyptian Theatre, TMP will return to New Orleans in late October or early November for interviews with those involved in the collaboration--from set designers to dancers and audience members.

"We're going to take a look at interviews side by side where there are different accounts of what happened. We're going to bring their memories to life," Morck said.

Ma Maison is scheduled for a January 2015 release; but, in the meantime, the Sept. 11 performance will be a chance for members of TMP and the PHJB to relive some New Orleans magic live for a Boise audience.

"We're re-creating a moment that happened in New Orleans. I think it will be a beautiful moment to see because it's a moment that will never happen again for anybody else," Werhun said.

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