Last summer, the renowned New Orleans ensemble Preservation Hall Jazz Band released 11 tracks of original material on the Sony/Legacy album That's It!—the first album of all-original material in the band's inveterate 50-year history.
"Not only was it okay to write and record new music, but it was necessary for this style and for this tradition," says Preservation Hall Jazz Band creative director Ben Jaffe. "Otherwise, this tradition will die. … When we made the decision to move forward with an album of original material, I sat the band down and had a very honest conversation about what this would mean for our future. Overwhelmingly, everyone in the band felt very strongly about moving in this direction and making a statement."
What must have been a candid conversation led to an equally complex decision. Recording an album of jazz originals steeped in tradition but heavily influenced by today's rhythms could have spelled disaster. Some jazz purists might argue that a misstep could have pushed the band astray of their mission of preserving the rich history of traditional New Orleans jazz, a cause that Ben's parents Allan and Sarah Jaffe championed when they opened Preservation Hall in 1961.
On the other hand, Ben notes that his parents were not strict preservationists. They provided instead a forum at the 726 St. Peter Street address, deep in the French Quarter, for some of New Orleans' finest jazzmen to play the music their way. Famous jazz greats like clarinetist George Lewis, pianist and singer "Sweet Emma" Barrett, and sousaphonist and bassist Walter Payton are just a handful of the many musicians who have played at Preservation Hall.
Now helming the hall in the role his father held for so many years, the younger Jaffe sees That's It! as a healthy step forward that honors the heritage and traditions of New Orleans jazz while also providing a catalyst to spur on the band in the coming years.
"If we don't take this step forward, the music will end up being something that people 30 years from now will be trying to recreate rather than having it existing naturally," Jaffe says. "That's when Preservation Hall would cease being, and this musical tradition would not be part of our lives in New Orleans anymore."
Co-produced by Jaffe and My Morning Jacket's frontman Jim James, the band holed up in Preservation Hall for an eight-day recording session in November 2012. With songs co-written by Dan Wilson (Semisonic), Chris Stapleton (the SteelDrivers), and Paul Williams ("Evergreen," "Rainbow Connection," and several more hit songs), the results boast a vibrant, clear sound that accentuates each member's deft contributions to the project.
Listeners have taken notice, as That's It! is a rock-solid debut that showcases the current lineup's accomplished players and wide musical range. On the Spanish-tinged instrumental album opener and title track, trumpeter Mark Braud provides a scorching solo while Jaffe's sousaphone and Ronell Johnson's tuba provide a frenzied bottom-end charge. Elsewhere, the 82-year-old fourth-generation New Orleans musician Charlie Gabriel's spoken baritone and skilled clarinet work on the easy swaying "Come With Me" and trombonist Freddie Lonzo's playing and throaty singing on the ghoulish-sounding "Rattlin' Bones" also stand out.
Yet, it's the hip-hop influence on "Sugar Plum," powered by Johnson's powerful tuba boogie, that finds the band in a unique place, balancing both tradition and evolution.
"For the younger guys in the band, hip-hop is an important part of our identity," Jaffe says. "It just goes to show that each guy in the band brings such a strong background and each is very different. However, we're all connected by the same musical roots."
At age 38 and the band's youngest member, Johnson personifies the band's progression. His great uncle Joseph "Kid Twat" Butler played string bass for both legendary trumpeter Kid Thomas Valentine and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in the 1960s. A former student of Jaffe's, Johnson and his brother Steven formed the Coolbone Brass Band in high school in the mid '90s and pioneered a New Orleans sound called "brass-hop," a swaggering style of brass-band music that melded elements of jazz, soul, and rap music.
The band plans to continue writing and recording new songs encompassing the diversity of New Orleans music while teaching younger generations about the city's storied past through example and performance in the Preservation Hall's educational program. After all, it was under the tutelage of the great masters that current members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band learned their repertoire and many of the city's undocumented musical traditions.
"There is no blueprint or playbook for marching at a funeral procession," Jaffe says. "You learn it through mentorship. Just as we inherited all of our musical traditions from older musicians and from family members, it's very important for us to perpetuate that legacy."