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Preservation Hall Jazz Band: The 50th Anniversary Collection

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In simultaneously looking back and forward, these two releases by the Preservation Hall band, in celebration of the Hall’s 50th anniversary, are a reminder that while individuals and styles pass and change, it’s the spirit of the music that lives on-and what a joyful spirit it is. “We thought we should release these two projects at the same time because we wanted the collection to be a reflection of who we were and who we are,” explains Ben Jaffe, 41, bass and tuba player and creative director of the Hall, a New Orleans institution his parents helped found and develop. “And we knew that the Carnegie Hall concert would be a statement: ‘This is who we are today, and this is where we are moving in the future.'”

Produced by Jaffe and Michael Cuscuna and informatively annotated by Bruce Boyd Raeburn, curator of Tulane University’s Hogan Jazz Archive, the four-CD The 50th Anniversary Collection features gems from all of the major recordings by the Hall’s bands. As if to underscore the continuity over the years despite the changes, including those due to the passing of some of the Hall’s most celebrated members, the tracks are deliberately not organized chronologically-and the overall effect is invigorating.

The selection in the four-CD set includes pieces from the four LPs Nesuhi Ertegun recorded at the Hall in 1962; 1964’s iconic Sweet Emma and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, featuring pianist Sweet Emma Barrett; and the 1966 classic New Orleans’ Billie and De De and Their Preservation Hall Jazz Band, featuring the wife-and-husband team of pianist Billie and trumpeter and cornetist De De Pierce. Many of the tracks include other revered New Orleans musicians such as clarinetists George Lewis and Willie Humphrey, trumpeter Percy Humphrey and drummer Cie Frazier. But the program also features recent collaborations with artists such as Pete Seeger (“We Shall Overcome”), Tom Waits (a spirited “Tootie Ma Is a Big Fine Thing”), Richie Havens (a sober “Trouble in Mind”) and bluegrass master Del McCoury, including a smart arrangement of “I’ll Fly Away.”

Remarkably, while the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has maintained a rather narrow set repertoire over the years, the selection smartly manages just a few repetitions-and all are well justified. In fact, perhaps the most striking piece is a terrific version of “St. James Infirmary” (King Britt Remix) by a small-group configuration in 2008. Compare it with a more classic reading by the De De and Billie Pierce band in 1966. Also, now and then, among classics such as “Oh Didn’t He Ramble” or “Corinna, Corinna,” there’s a curveball like the Kinks’ “Complicated Life,” a bit of yodeling (Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel”) or some sweet Afro-Cuban swaying (“El Manicero”).

St. Peter & 57th St. captures the current PHJB with several guests at Preservation Hall’s 50th Anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall in January 2012. The tone is set early on by the loose “Bourbon Street Parade,” and it goes from there. The music zigs and zags-from Del McCoury and Allen Touissant to My Morning Jacket, from bluegrass and gospel to Afro-Cuban music, from the sacred to the bawdy-but remains anchored by an infectious sense of joy.

This is not about tradition as a museum piece or some quaint old building in New Orleans, but about a music very much alive, grounded in the community and boasting a rich history and a future. Now that’s a reason to celebrate.

Originally Published