Somewhere recently (I believe it was a radio interview with Louis Armstrong archivist Ricky Riccardi), I heard someone make the claim that no other American city is as musical as New Orleans. Sure, there are numerous cities that have been integral to the evolution of American music: Detroit, Nashville, New York, Chicago, Memphis, San Francisco, on down the line. But in accordance with the aforementioned claim, I’m hard pressed to think of another city where music is so much a part of the locale’s DNA that the two are inseparable.
Among the many great artists and institutions that populate New Orleans’ musical scene and heritage, one of the best known and most loved is Preservation Hall. Just a step away from the daiquiri-soaked neon of Bourbon Street, Preservation Hall is an unassuming facade (and equally unassuming interior) on St. Peter Street. The AV Club’s excellent Pop Pilgrims series profiled Preservation Hall a while back, and this brief clip outlines the history and purpose of the the institution far better than I am able.
From Preservation Hall’s beginning in the 1960s, the rotating cast of musicians has lovingly been documented to disc. The rich history of these recordings was most recently compiled in last year’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band 50th Anniversary Collection. The band’s discography is filled with stellar performances of standards pulling from jazz, spirituals, and traditional folk tunes, all interpreted in classic New Orleans jazz style. Classics such as “St. James Infirmary,” “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” “Corinna, Corinna,” “Down by the Riverside,” “Little Liza Jane,” “Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well,” and of course, “When the Saints go Marching in,” the latter of which commands a $10 tip at the Hall.
This week sees the release of yet another release by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, That’s It! And while a new document of this historically significant band is in itself something to celebrate, the release marks the first disc of completely original compositions by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Much like what you’d experience at Preservation Hall itself, That’s It! is very much an ensemble recording, a diverse cast of musical characters including Charlie Gabriel (clarinet), Clint Maedgen (saxophone), Ronell Johnson (tuba), Joseph Lastie Junior (drums), and Mark Braud (trumpet).
Preservation Hall is all about the Old School. But on That’s It!, the band ain’t just whistlin’ dixieland. The overall sound of the album absolutely harkens back to the classic jazz that initiated (and continues) in the Crescent City. But there’s also a mist of contemporary jazz sounds here too, making the final product a musical gumbo (pardon the cliched pun) of the city’s rich jazz traditions.
Part of that contemporary element is no doubt a direct effect of the production. The sessions came under the direction of two producers from seemingly different muscial worlds. Ben Jaffe is currently a tuba player in the Band, son of the Hall’s founders, and now its acting director. Also behind the boards is Jim James of My Morning Jacket. Both adept musicians schooled in different areas on the musical map, their sharing of production duties has created a rich sound that captures the timelessness of New Orleans jazz.
Clocking in at just over 37 minutes, That’s It! doesn’t leave any room for filler, and the band gets right to it with the album’s opener and title track. Propelled by a thunderous drum beat and blaring horn runs, “That’s It!” has the kind of irresistible rhythm reminiscent another New Orleans classic, Louis Prima’s “Sing Sing Sing,” which later became a standard for Benny Goodman and his orchestra.
From that rambunctious opener, the album runs the gamut through the gospel-shout of “Dear Lord (Give Me the Strength),” the lyrical and musical creep of “Rattlin’ Bones,” the shuffle of “I Think I Love You,” and the minor-key boogie of “Halfway Right, Halfway Wrong.” Track after track, That’s It! delivers a continuous stream of foot stomping jazz mired deep in New Orleans’ history, yet coming packaged with a freshness that rivals the current band’s contemporaries. Whether future recordings of originals are in store for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band remains to be seen (heard). Yet with That’s It! the 51-year old institution of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has landed with a compelling set of original tunes that serve as further evidence for the importance of preserving our musical heritage while continuing to progress forward.
Check out what I assume to be a fan-made video for “That’s It!” below.