Graded on a Curve:
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, That’s It!

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band is back with a new LP titled That’s It!, and those that know them as a sturdy source of classic jazz in the style of New Orleans might be pleasantly surprised by the new wrinkle this album presents. Not only is it produced by Jim James of My Morning Jacket, but the trim 11-song set finds a whole lot of well-executed tricks up their collective sleeve. Many of these sly gestures are contemporary in nature, but none connect as forced, so it’s safe to say that an inaugural PHJB-member like “Sweet Emma” Barrett would cast an approving eye on this latest incarnation of the group.

There are always dangers when a veritable musical institution makes a new record. In the case of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the riskiness is modified somewhat by their status as a membership-shifting reservoir of New Orleans-based jazz talent. Historically, the group’s existence has been dedicated to live performances and studio recordings that revived the traditional jazz roots of their home city, the presentation steeped in an atmosphere of respect and carrying an educational objective that did a great job of avoiding the lesser rewards of the kid-gloves museum treatment.

And a huge part of the reason for the PHJB’s vitality came down to the musicians that comprised the group, particularly early in their formation, with such important figures as clarinetists George Lewis and Willie Humphrey, trumpeters Punch Miller, Percy Humphrey, and Kid Thomas Valentine, cornet-man De De Pierce, his pianist wife Billie Pierce, banjoist Narvin Kimball, bassist Alcide “Slow Drag” Pavageau, and drummer Josiah “Cie” Frazier playing the tunes not only at the Preservation Hall location but frequently out on tour.

These musicians rated esteem partially for their involvement in the rich jazz activity of the 1920s, with some of the individuals named above doing duty with such time-honored names as Kid Ory, King Oliver, Papa Celestin, Jelly Roll Morton, Bunk Johnson, and the original Eureka Brass Band. But their renown also sprung from the simple fact that they’d actually survived with their skills largely intact, and were more than ready to serve as ambassadors for the undying richness of the New Orleans jazz tradition.

Records have been cut by the PHJB since shortly after their formation, which was instigated by tuba player Allan Jaffe after he and his wife Sandra transformed a building located at 726 St. Peter’s St. into Preservation Hall. The earliest of these albums, many recorded live (and again, often out on the road), are generally seen as the strongest PHJB documents, including winners led by Billie and De De Pierce and pianist “Sweet Emma” Barrett, with both of those records made for the Preservation Hall label in the mid-‘60s.

Along with such non-PHJB material as the nifty Nobility Records’ volume A Night at Heritage Hall cut by “Papa” French and His New Orleans Jazz Band (to my knowledge never reissued and therefore unjustly obscure) and the dandy New Orleans – The Living Legends series produced by Riverside Records (the entries of which featured pre-PHJB recordings from some of the group’s pivotal early members), those early Preservation Hall documents landed squarely into the admirable folklorist zone of their era, and they continue to provide fine listening.

However, some severe hardliners (and few toe the line quite as intensely as a certain strain of jazz buff) grumped that the PHJB was something other than top-tier, with a number fuming even further over the apparent inability of the Hall’s fans to recognize the difference between the groundbreaking work of Oliver and Ory (simply put, some of the most crucial and still vital music of the 20th Century) and the more politely-mannered “rediscovery” material that was organized under Jaffe.

But these views largely missed that the PHJB served a very different function than the rough and tumble bands that created the jazz of New Orleans, with the Hall’s main (and plainly stated) objective being the conservation of a grand tradition that in the years directly prior to their formation had been stricken with some very hard times.

And the Preservation Hall’s deep bag of goodness also detailed the revitalizing circularity of art-as-ritual-as-art and the continued celebration of a music that was born out of intense struggle. In so doing they easily sidestepped the intolerant aura of the Moldy Figs of the past and the often prickly attitudes of the Neo-Trad brigade to come. With the PHJB, there was no agenda except keeping the music alive amidst a sea of constant change.

With that said, not all Preservation Hall Jazz Band releases have been equally successful over the years. For instance, a string of four records cut for Columbia beginning in ’77 started out very strong with the classic New Orleans Vol. 1, but three albums and a decade later the situation wasn’t quite so rosy. And sadly ‘87’s up-and-down affair New Orleans Vol. 4 was the last LP cut with Allan Jaffe on tuba; he died on March 10 of that year.

It didn’t take long for Jaffe’s bass and tuba playing son Benjamin to get involved with the PHJB’s continued motion; he’s on both ‘96’s gospel-themed Sweet Bye and Bye and ‘98’s Narvin Kimball-showcase Because of You, and his role has steadily grown. Currently, Jaffe serves as the group’s Creative Director, and thus far he’s been doing an excellent job of stepping into his father’s shoes.

Not only has the Preservation Hall label reissued those key early recordings led by the Pierces and Barrett, but there’s also the terrific Made in New Orleans: The Hurricane Sessions, a set that documents the contents of tapes rescued in Katrina’s wake, material ranging from late-‘50s vintage to ‘70s live stuff to songs cut shortly before the storm hit (and post-storm additives that rather amazingly don’t muck up the program.)

But Jaffe’s also led the band into a series of collaborations with artists unsurprising (Tom Waits), sensible (Pete Seeger, Merle Haggard, Del McCoury), and intriguing (Andrew Bird, Mos Def, and My Morning Jacket.) The deepest relationships forged from these collabs (which culminated in a star-studded Carnegie Hall performance that’s available for listening) were with McCoury (a joint album titled American Legacies) and My Morning Jacket (PHJB opened for MMJ on tour.)

So finding MMJ main-man Jim James sitting in the co-producer’s seat along with Jaffe for the Hall’s new Legacy Records disc That’s It! isn’t as unlikely as it might initially seem, at least for those who’ve not been keeping up with the PHJB’s recent trajectory. Perhaps more surprising to those with a casual knowledge of the group’s discography (say, those early recs and New Orleans Vol. 1) is just how vocally-oriented this new disc becomes as its concise running-time unfolds.

That last statement requires some clarification. Along with a deep gusto-drenched engagement with the tuba, banjo, and the clarinet, all instruments that either disappeared or suffered greatly as jazz made its inevitable march into the realms of modernity, the PHJB were also never bashful about the vocal imperative located in the heart of New Orleans jazz. And at their best, they’ve managed to integrate this impulse with rewarding musicianship; please check the Barrett spotlight “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” from New Orleans’ Sweet Emma and Her Preservation Hall Jazz Band for details.

To his credit Ben Jaffe hasn’t been a bit shy about plunging right into the PHJB’s wheelhouse of rich instrumentation and spirited vocalism. As evidence, there’s both the majesty of ‘04’s Shake That Thing, a recording of an expanded lineup that swaggers like a true champion, and even better, the same year’s The Preservation Hot 4 with Duke Dejan, which features a smoking small combo working it out with singer Harold Dejan, founder of the long-serving Olympia Brass Band.

But Jaffe and the group have taken an interesting turn with That’s It! Specifically, for the first time in the group’s 50-year existence they’ve cut an LP made up entirely of originals, the majority composed by Jaffe and members of the band, with a few in collaboration with outside writers, most notably veteran tunesmith Paul Williams. And since chestnuts like “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” are now long familiar if not necessarily exhausted, this bold maneuver into fresh material is actually a very savvy decision.

And the results are a fine dish of suave artistry delivered by a highly accomplished bunch of guys. Along with Jaffe on bass and tuba there’s Mark Braud on trumpet, Charlie Gabriel on tenor sax and clarinet, Ronell Johnson on piano and tuba, Joe Lastie Jr. on drums, Freddie Lonzo on trombone, Rickie Monie on piano, and Clint Maedgen on tenor and baritone sax. Gabriel, Johnson, Lonzo, and Maedgen all take vocal leads, and everyone else (including James on one cut) chips in with background voicing.

If the record has a limitation it’s that the collective instrumental prowess occasionally takes a back seat to the singing, but that fact falls right into line with the all-originals objective of the record, and since all these vocalists have talent and personality to spare, as a limiting factor this circumstance is ultimately a rather minor one.

And while I was initially struck by the polish of Jim James’ production (especially since it was recorded in Preservation Hall by James’ engineer Kevin Ratterman), this overall eschewal of the deep acoustics associated with modern jazz recording in favor of a crisp pop-minded presentation makes sense both for this particular band and in the context of the PHJB as a whole.

As evidence, this record’s opener “Dear Lord (Give Me Strength)” quickly combines a sturdy swing pulse with the gospel fervor that’s helped shape the PHJB’s music for nearly a century. Plus, the smoothness of the audio helps to join these classic sensibilities with a contemporary vitality that’s unforced and therefore refreshing. But the biggest touches of modernity come through Johnson’s vocals, which display a conversance with the deep fervor of gospel-soul, and a fine solo by Braud that’s slyly understated in its knowledge of post-bop developments as he commences to blow up a small storm.

That leads into “Come with Me,” a sprightly number that leans toward a Swing era aesthetic, and if a modest examination of those charms, the warm voice of the 80-year Gabriel sells it as something more. But it’s the instrumental “Sugar Plum” that provides the album’s first strong taste of the band’s collective capabilities as players.

The tubas bring the tune a thick, dexterous bottom while the saxophones sway and undertake smart, concise solo excursions as the tandem of piano and drums deepen the dialogue with skill that’s immediately apparent; to seal the deal, Braud gives another fine showing on his horn. And Braud’s major contribution to this album continues on the next song, his assertive muted-trumpet stylings helping to infuse “Rattlin’ Bones” with the appropriate hues of Hot Jazz.

The whole band saunters around like an unusually-fleet hippopotamus stricken with a heavy dose of the bluesy influenza, and Lonzo’s singing transforms the tune into a swank rumination that’s sorta like the sound of an unrecorded Halloween-themed 78 knocked-out by prime-time showman Cab Calloway. From there the Caribbean-tinged pop of “I Think I Love You” settles things down a bit, but there’s also no denying the unfussy flair of Gabriel’s vocal style as the song proceeds.

“August Nights” is perhaps the biggest surprise on That’s It!, an appropriately steamy composition that suggests the backdrop of ‘50s noir. The musicianship is reliably on the money (if, like much of the record, far afield from anything heard prior in the PHJB discography) and Maedgen’s writing is accomplished, but his vocals, while certainly well sung, lack the grizzled or burdened flavor that would’ve further elevated the song.

But the specter of authenticity has never really been a bugaboo for the Hall. They just came up with this tune, Maedgen sings it with conviction, and the result provides a very likeable new page in the PHJB’s book. Interestingly, “Halfway Right, Halfway Wrong,” one of the LP’s best numbers, combines the collective urgency of the Band’s New Orleans background with some superb, contemporary-tinged playing and a hot heap of tough, bluesy shouting from Johnson.

The succinct “Yellow Moon” starts off in a rustic zone with a strummed banjo complimenting Gabriel’s smooth clarinet, but it quickly shifts into a relaxed and fluid beauty move. And “The Darker it Gets,” the result of the Paul Williams collab, is effectively stately, reminiscent at times of both “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Just a Gigolo,” but I really could’ve used more of that serrated-edge trombone. But “Emmalena’s Lullaby” takes a wide left turn into moody solo piano, a truly splendid little digression, and like “August Nights,” it shows Ratterman and James widening the production palate when appropriate.

The title track closes the album with a killer instrumental (Braud is again in top form) that brings the New Orleans mystique wailing right into the present with a hefty dose of The Cotton Club thrown into the mix for good measure. With That’s It! The Preservation Hall Jazz Band do an outstanding job of reinforcing their institutional reputation, sidestepping the problems associated with their storied past by engaging fully with their present reality and keeping an eye on the future.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

Editor’s Note: in the spirit of clarity, we should mention that the author based his review on a promotional download that numbered the opening track as last in the song order. This does nothing to alter the high assessment of the record below, but is worth noting up front to avoid any unnecessary confusion.

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