On their new albums, Davell Crawford and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band show themselves.
There's a lot to be said for being yourself. In the case of Davell Crawford, I'm not sure he can be anything else. He took 14 years between albums, which says he's following any well-worn career script. On My Gift for You (Basin Street), he seizes the opportunity and unloads 15 songs that take well more than an hour to run through, in the process honoring as many of his gifts as possible. Crawford reminds us of his piano chops (New Orleans' variety among others), his funk and jazz skills, his hushed, honeyed voice, and his arranging ability, all of which could result in a messy sprawl if it weren't held together by a definite central personality.
The opening track, "Creole Man," signals from the start that My Gift for You is a personal vision as it opens with ominous strings and a swirling, spacey synthesizer that grow together in intensity until they resolve in the Atlanta Braves' tomahawk chop riff. He spends a good minute on it, running rhythmic and keyboard ideas under it to keep the vibe alive until he finally gets to verse, which has its own melody. "I am the Creole Man," he sings. "I'll make you sing and dance and waltz a while." In the song, he locates himself at the cross-time intersection of Africa, America and the origins (I assume) of Mardi Gras Indians, which is smart, interesting content. Unfortunately, the actual lyrics and Crawford's singing of them make the Creole sound akin to elven folk, perhaps the entertainers who'd have livened up the trip to Mordor.
Nothing else on My Gift for You evokes Prince and Cher at the same time, but the fact that it does so isn't a bad thing. It's probably not what Crawford was going for, but it's his thing nonetheless. He gently, benevolently polishes every word and phrase throughout the album until they're all things of beauty. Whether they all should be is a valid question, but "Junco Partner Cud'in Joe" is sung with the same loving caress as Billy Joel's "River of Dreams" and James Taylor's "Fire and Rain." The first is a late night blues with synth strings and Clavinet punctuating the slowed-down take on the classic; the latter moves from pillowy chord to pillowy chord on the Fender Rhodes until Nicholas Payton's sweet, elegant solo eases in with understated shades of melancholy.
In recent years, Crawford has spent a lot of time living in New York City, which might explain three songs with Louisiana and three with "southern" in the title. That's more than necessary, but it's not about need. Every musical decision sounds true to Crawford, and that's what matters. He's clearly deeply invested in every moment on My Gift for You, and for that reason the album does sound like an actual gift - music that means a lot to him that he's sharing with us.
For The Preservation Hall Jazz Band the challenge of being yourself is a fraught one. What's its core personality when the band has cycled not just through members but entire lineups? It has a clear identity as the band that flies the flag for traditional New Orleans in a contemporary context, but do listeners feel like they know the band or its members after listening to the music? On That's It!, the jury's out. The album is produced by Hall artistic director Ben Jaffe and My Morning Jacket's Jim James, and one thing James clearly knows how to do is treat vocalists. Clint Maedgen and Charlie Gabriel have never sounded warmer or more personable,
The question I can't resolve is whether Jaffe - who wrote or co-wrote all the songs but one on the album - is a keen student of New Orleans music who can mimic the faceless quality of many traditional compositions, or if his writing's simply a little faceless. He and the band are too smart and talented to be anything less than entertaining, so the title cut (complete with a jackhammer in the background at 1:37), "Dear Lord (Give Me the Strength)," and "Halfway Right, Halfway Wrong" are joyous. But when the album ends, I remember which songs I enjoyed most, not the songs themselves.
I give Jaffe and the band the benefit of the doubt. He generally thinks a good game and is conceptually on point, and historically the band has always been about performance more than the material. While nobody stands out on That's It!, the ensemble is ridiculously tight - swinging, charging or grooving, depending on what the song needs. It's tempting to point to drummer Joe Lastie Jr. as the hero on the album for the way he drives the band, but the muscle comes from group being as in sync with him as it is.
So does That's It! have personality? I'll say a post-modern yes, which will seem to a lot of people like a no - like the album itself.