[26 July 2009]
Ever since Hurricane Katrina, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s synecdochical relationship to New Orleans has intensified. As the group’s wellness links up to the fortunes of the city itself, they have become one of the city’s most visible cultural ambassadors. The resurgence of nightly shows at Preservation Hall’s St. Peter Street location, for example, became a sign that things are somehow approaching normal, at least in the French Quarter. And so this latest release by the group clearly represents some sort of hope for how far the city has come on its long road to recovery.
New Orleans Preservation, Vol. 1 does a nice job of tapping into this narrative, with its careful attention to the past and its clear commitment to the future. Featuring a lineup that spans race and—perhaps more importantly in this case—generations, this version of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is uniquely located to offer a record of standards. The result is not exactly an archive project, nor is it a total reimagining of the songs. Rather, it’s a collection that stakes out a place on the side of tradition, but still toes the line of progress with bright, bass-heavy mixes and the offhand original song.
The album offers some familiar choices, like “Tiger Rag”, “What a Friend”, and “Choko Mo Feel No Hey”, as well as some less obvious selections. These include “El Manicero”, a West Indies street market song held in place by a musical fusion of the African and the Spanish Caribbean (and a tribute to Jelly Roll Morton’s claims about jazz’s indelible “Latin tinge”), and saxophonist Clint Maedgon’s original “Halloween”, a tribute to the seasonal shift out of the summer heat into autumn. “Blue Yodel, No. 9”, originally a product of the mythic 1930 session in Hollywood that brought together Jimmie Rodgers and Louis Armstrong, is grafted into the New Orleans canon—and it fits nicely, especially in this arrangement, which draws out the song’s bluesier currents with a booming sousaphone and adapted lyrics (the song’s “Tennessee hustler” becomes a “French Quarter hustler”). This particular performance acts as proof that, for all its titular devotion to preservation, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is at its best when it allows tradition a little breathing room.
“Westland Dirge” is one of the few places where the mood is less than ebullient, and the shift in tone keeps the collection of songs grounded, offering a fuller view of the New Orleans songbook. But this is ultimately a celebratory set, as “Ice Cream” (“I scream, you scream / We all scream”) proves. This song also appeared on the first Preservation Hall record, 1964’s Sweet Emma and Her Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and its presence as the final song on New Orleans Preservation, Vol. 1 has a bookending effect, artfully tying this album back to that earlier one and weaving the Preservation Hall project into a loose skein of continuity. Although the ground has changed considerably since the early ‘60s, these songs remain gleaming little cross-sections of America’s most celebrated musical culture.
Cut live in Preservation Hall, the recording does away with any kind of low-fi grime, relying instead on a clean, punchy sound. It’s nice to hear the band work in this kind of definition, but it might also benefit from a splash of grit. Preservation Hall Jazz Band plays jazz in broad strokes—they outline in bold all the anticipated moves and execute them with studied professionalism, loving attention, and a genuine warmth. Yet, at times, the group’s amicability nearly recasts New Orleans, Louisiana, as New Orleans Square, Anaheim, where all music is safe and easy to digest. Whether you’re satisfied by this approach or not will largely be a matter of taste, but New Orleans Preservation, Vol. 1 is further proof that, over the past 40 years, the group has earned its title and synonymous association with the storied music of its home city.