Nice Old Night Out in N.O.
Like its companion volume drawn from the archives, only more so, this celebration of the New Orleans jazz refuge and recovery centre has a certain tourist reference. Perhaps it’s a diner reference? Every tune’s a chestnut, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” through “Eh, La Bas” to (the one marginal case) “Back Porch”. Every one features a singer, which is one difference from, for instance, the forty-year-old Riverside recordings I unearthed for present research purposes. In fact, most of the eight performances (under 49 minutes total) are built around the vocal, most of which go on too long to escape wholly from “easy listening” into jazz.
Hopefully, this is an early popularising volume in a series which will sometime feature something like the out and out swing of, say, Riverside’s well prepared Jim Robinson’s New Orleans Band, drawn from the then-available pool of New Orleans musicians and playing some repertoire of the old Sam Morgan band. Robinson had Creole George Guesnon on banjo, a well-enough-known singer who kept his mouth shut the whole time on that date and let the music sing. The only vocal on two vinyl albums was Annie Pavageau’s on “In the Sweet Bye and Bye”, whereas from the start here we have—modelled on a crowd pleaser featured by the old men Preservation Hall band long ago—a stock gospel performance of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”, into which the band moves for token solos and ensemble samples.
Robinson, Herb Friedwald tells us in his 1960s notes, was not one for the stock routine of one soloist after another, and there was no piano on the sessions he was given to head. I would recommend them for their vigorous not unsubtle realisation of music as it was played and all-too-briefly recorded 35 years earlier.
The present CD’s music also goes back maybe 35 years, in well-played emulation of some things the old men of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band were doing in the, well, 1980s, and when Frank Demond (featured here) was the baby of the band on trombone. The problem is that he sounds like he’s verging on the ancient in a “Just A Closer Walk with Thee” at a pace which would be considerate were it set for the (now passed) worthy ancients who used to tour. Yet nobody on this recording sounds anywhere near the end of his prime. There is none of the roughness and clumsiness into which the years took the old men, and none of the energy or passion which got from them performances at times coarse, but always moving. Smouldering embers still burn, but this CD’s just comfortably warm. The notion of good time music has no salvation but in the performers’ impressive command of idiom. Here, in succession to old men playing the music of their youth, are young men playing the music of old men now gone. There’s a lot of charm, but not the same charm and not the same spiritual ambition.
“Little Liza Jane” is a warhorse much ridden and still ridden by the English veteran Chris Barber’s if need be multi-purpose orchestra, who do it in much the same way, with a tenor saxophone, though without the marching band business. Shannon Powell does have a nice bit of (metaphorically) dancing around in drum solo, and as able as Barber’s musicians are, the men mustered here for this performance are decidedly proficient, Leroy Jones on trumpet very notably. I’d rather have a few more ensemble choruses with his lead than the vocal on “That Bucket’s Got AHole in It”. Gregg Stafford also plays a nice lead on “Back Porch”, touching the potential of a ragtimey lead in the very old style. He also does some nice growling. His vocal is fun, but there’s room for more.
Jacques Gauthe on clarinet sounds like a faintly Klezmerised version of the style of Jimmy Noone, at times making his instrument sound like a 1920s alto saxophonist, at times doing some tonguing in Bechet’s manner. I just wish somebody else had been interested in tearing it up a bit.
But a really major difference between the ensembles featured here and both Barber and Robinson is the presence of not merely piano, which was a feature of the elder Preservation Hall bands, but of a Professor Longhair style of New Orleans piano—whether from Thaddeus Richard, Rickie Monie, or John Royen—when not obliged to play the gospel piano of the two genuinely unfortunate selections here. On the wonderful set recorded for the English JSP label at a London concert, Longhair performed an amazing instrumental “Ice Cream” from the stock New Orleans repertoire (the tune is very adventurously played on the Robinson recordings mentioned above, and was a pop hit for Chris Barber in Germany!). There is some potential in Preservation Hall for this style that came into being apparently only relatively late. But there’s not much attention to style here beyond a general nostalgic jollity, and smooth blend. The latter of these was achieved at the cost of rhythmic flexibility and drive. Dance, dammit!
Drawn from a pool of 21, including guests, and combined variously into stock three-man front line ensembles and the rest, the instrumentalists don’t get that much opportunity. They get to play the introduction to the vocal, and the standard couple of solo choruses and the even more rare burst by the ensemble—but in music whose whole character was developed as ensemble interaction. So Jim Robinson insisted, according to Herb Friedwald. There was no shortage of that from the initial Preservation Hall bands when they could play—to judge at least from Riverside and other catalogues. It’s hardly tried here.
This is all very jolly, very nice, very un-insistent. This music has more to do with rumour than with tradition. I hope it’s a popularising venture. If it isn’t, much of the best older New Orleans music will miss being played and heard.