Friday, July 19, 2013

All new Preservation Hall, 'That's It'

By Keith Spera, Times-Picayune

On Tuesday, July 9, the members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band logged their second consecutive night on “The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon.” Arrayed alongside versatile hip-hop ensemble the Roots, the show’s house band, they gamely provided accompaniment to Fallon’s Paula Deen jokes, David Spade’s strip club stories, and Kris Jenner’s show biz come-ons.

This was not the same Preservation Hall Jazz Band that first assembled in 1961 in the primitive French Quarter venue overseen by Allan and Sandra Jaffe. Rather, this was the Preservation Hall Jazz Band 2013, the forward-thinking ensemble led by the Jaffes' son, Ben, its artistic director and tuba player. It’s the Preservation Hall Jazz Band that is on Twitter and a regular at the Millennial-skewing Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee.
And it is the Preservation Hall Jazz Band that, on Tuesday, released “That’s It!,” the first album of all-original material in the PHJB’s history.

Guiding the project as co-producers were Jaffe and Jim James, the shaggy, angelic-voiced singer of arena rock band My Morning Jacket. Indicative of the fresh creative paths down which Jaffe has steered the PHJB, My Morning Jacket in general, and James specifically, have forged an unlikely but mutually beneficial creative exchange program.

That James understands what Preservation Hall is about was especially evident during the 2012 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, when he was among the special guests for the PHJB’s 50th anniversary celebration at the Fair Grounds. He poured himself into a slow, spooky version of "St. James Infirmary," a highlight of the show.

James joined the PHJB for a week of recording at Preservation Hall in the French Quarter last November. “That’s It!,” the result of those sessions, released via the Legacy imprint of Sony Music Entertainment, marks the PHJB’s return to a major label.

Jaffe, trumpeter Mark Braud, clarinetist Charlie Gabriel, saxophonist Clint Maedgen, trombonist Freddie Lonzo, pianist Rickie Monie, tuba player Ronell Johnson and drummer Joe Lastie Jr. introduce themselves boldly with the bawdy opening title cut, a Jaffe composition. Horns razz and flare as if it is Arabian Night at a Storyville bordello; Braud lights up a statement of a trumpet solo.

They’re on a more familiar, traditional footing with “Dear Lord (Give Me Strength),” another Jaffe song. The preening piano and horns function as the choir in a high-stepping, gospel-informed plea for redemption. The PHJB’s senior member, clarinetist Charlie Gabriel, co-wrote and sings, in his unselfconsciously deliberate cadence, “Come With Me,” a sweet-natured ode to the city, graced by his clarinet.

The ensemble sounds more like a contemporary brass band on the tuba-heavy instrumental “Sugar Plum,” another Jaffe/Gabriel co-write. A tenor sax glides over the undulating arrangement before Braud again asserts himself.

Percussion and lascivious horns spook “Rattlin’ Bones,” a nod to New Orleans after dark: “If you ever get down New Orleans way, you might steer clear on St. Joseph’s Day/The graveyard bones make a rattlin’ sound/the dead get up and start walking around.”
James contributes backing vocals to the mid-tempo “I Think I Love You,” shadowing Gabriel’s voice. Maedgen, whom Jaffe recruited from the New Orleans Bingo! Show, wrote the slow-burn “August Nights,” a seductive bit of New Orleans noir haunted by Braud’s muted trumpet and Maedgen’s tenor sax and male torch singer approach to the lyric.

The opening banjo signals that this instrumental “Yellow Moon” is not to be confused with the Neville Brothers classic of the same title – but it is similarly evocative, up until its playful conclusion. “The Darker It Gets” will appeal to fans of more traditional jazz. The haunted piano of Jaffe’s final coda, “Emmalena’s Lullaby,” offers further proof that this is a Preservation Hall Jazz Band no longer satisfied to deal in the old clichés.

To that point, “That’s It’!” is also notable for what it is not. There is no “Lil Liza Jane,” no “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” no “St. James Infirmary.” Such New Orleans standards are all classics, but they’ve been done to death. There is little reason for anyone -- least of all Preservation Hall -- to revisit them yet again.
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band cannot, and should not, escape or avoid its esteemed and considerable legacy. But a respect for, and connection to, the past should not preclude looking forward. Music, and a musical community, that does not occasionally infuse itself with fresh blood risks being relegated to a museum, or dying. On “That’s It!,” the Preservation Hall Jazz Band sounds more alive than ever.

Music writer Keith Spera can be reached at or 504.826.3470. Follow him on Twitter at KeithSpera.

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