Preservation Hall caps its 50th anniversary celebration with two new CDs released today.
Last year, Preservation Hall and the jazz band that bears its name celebrated 50 years with activities throughout the year culminating in a star-studded show at Carnegie Hall. That show, like the show that the band played to close out this year's Jazz Fest, served as relatively concise statement of what the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has become. It has been the best-known name in traditional jazz for decades, but as such, it was in danger of becoming a living museum piece - something irrevocably associated with a long gone past. The Jazz Fest show contended that the Band is a standard-bearer for New Orleans music, and 2010's Preservation and the new St. Peter & 57th St. make a similar case for its place as living American music.
That CD on Rounder includes guests such as Steve Earle, Del McCoury, Allen Toussaint, GIVERS and more, and while not all the performances are equally successful - some could use more personality, some more precision - they collectively state that the values in the music that the band has performed all these years remain vital, and so does the band. The new four-CD set, The 50th Anniversary Collection (Sony/Legacy), puts material from the current, mixed-age lineup with more classic lineups, and the proximity serves all well. The current band - Mark Braud, Charlie Gabriel, Clint Maedgen, Freddie Lonzo, Rickie Monie, Ronell Johnson, Joseph Lastie Jr. and Jaffe - is thought of as messing with the genre, but its continuity with the past is clear when situated next to it. The previous incarnations gain vitality heard next to the current lineup.
Trumpeter Mark Braud is one of the recent additions to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, but he brought a different perspective when he joined after the death of John Brunious in 2008. Braud already had a career as a jazz trumpeter, but he had grown up in the Hall family as well. "My family has been affiliated with Preservation Hall for many years," he says. "I grew up going to Preservation Hall and listened to Preservation Hall records. Two of my uncles, Wendell Brunious and John Brunious, were leaders of the band for 25 years. I have a long-time affiliation with the Hall and Ben Jaffe. We went to high school together."
Recent incarnations of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band have gone where others haven't, whether its outside the New Orleans canon for The Kinks' "Complicated Life" or working with DJ King Britt to create a version of "St. James Infirmary" that's very much a product of DJ culture and not the live ethos that's at the heart of jazz. Still, Braud's version of the Hall band sounds fine next to other versions on The 50th Anniversary Collection because of what they have in common.
"The music was all made in the same spirit," he says. "There was the same amount of passion and conviction involved. It's just different because we bring our different experiences and different sounds into the music. We bring our own individual sounds. You can listen to these different bands, and it all sounds like New Orleans jazz; our band has more modern influences because we are modern."
Even though lineups change and the original members have long since passed, the current Preservation Hall Jazz Band is very much a band with a band's emphasis on achieving the sort of musical togetherness that only a band can achieve. "We're having musical conversations nightly," Braud says. "We can't all blow at the same time and expect it to sound cohesive. There are spaces that I may know not to fill in because this guy likes to play such-and-such right here, and he likes to play this right here, and I'm not going to clash with that. There's a lot of listening, and it's different with every band."
This band has had to listen to a lot of musicians. Some they've come to know well such as My Morning Jacket's Jim James and the Del McCoury Band, who they cut American Legacies with, while Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs was new to the Hall experience. At Carnegie Hall, Braud took all the guest spots as tributes to the Hall and what it's come to stand for, and the night flew by. "It was three hours," he says. "But the show was constantly moving. The configurations were constantly changing. It felt more like a half-hour."
Purists may contend that the band has drifted too far from traditional New Orleans jazz. Braud doesn't see it that way, but he wouldn't be bothered if it has. "If the music is changing, it's not such a bad thing," he says. "This music is still a progressive music. Collaborating with these different genres of music is not only bringing a larger audience to an awareness of our music, but it shows the diversity of this new band.
"The music is supposed to change with each generation that plays it, but still maintaining the same philosophy and integrity that our predecessors maintained. Our music is not so much about a style as a philosophy. It's very important to keep one foot in the future and keep the music relevant."