Review Summary: The current iteration of Preservation Hall Jazz Band seeks to carve out their own niche.
It may be strange to say a band is on the rise 50 years into their career, but in the case of Preservation Hall Jazz Band the evidence is undeniable. In the past year they've been venerated at major North American music festivals, collaborated with guest stars as wide ranging as The Del McCoury Band and Steve Earle, and now they release the first album of original material in the band's history, That's It!. Creative director David Jaffe says it's an effort by the band's current members to leave their mark on the modern musical landscape, as the great New Orleans jazz musicians of the past did in their day.
They have some well renowned friends to help them do it. This is not their first time working with Jim James of My Morning Jacket: they collaborated on "St. James Infirmary Part 1" on last year's St. Peter & 57th Street. This time he brings his expertise to the producer's booth, using his laser focused attention to detail to fine tune the band's sound. There are also a slew of well known songwriters at work on That's It! Most notable is Paul Williams, best known for a string of hits beginning in the 1970s and most recently involved with writing on singing on Daft Punk's Random Access Memories.
Many of the songs are pretty straightforward in terms of tone and theme, usually based upon some story of love or loss, or some facet of New Orleans. Yet it's the presentation of the message that determines the success or failure of a recording, and PHJB's composition most certainly has some meat on its bones."I Think I Love You" provides some great clarinet and offers a fantastic shuffling beat sure to get your hips twisting. Meanwhile, "Dear Lord (Give Me the Strength)" triumphantly fuses jazz and gospel to create a rapture inducing performance.
That's It! gives a great sense of the roots and tradition of New Orleans jazz. There are many frilly and jovial and brassy numbers, developed much in the style that was championed by old greats like Jelly Roll Morton. Tracks like "Rattlin' Bones" and "The Darker It Gets" are great examples. "Rattlin' Bones," in particular, does a fantastic job of showing off that eerie/creepy but awesome side of New Orleans jazz with a litany of blaring horns and shrill, piercing trumpets. It talks about skeletons rising up from their grave, which gives it a very morose, but awesome feel.
As would be expected with any jazz release, there is plenty of jazz improvising and soloing. The title track, along with "Sugar Plum," do a fine job of showing off the band's instrumental prowess. But other numbers break away from the mold and offer something different.
Newer listeners will likely be drawn in more by the band's traditional New Orleans sound, as it the sound they have been known for all these years, and makes a very distinctive mark upon our collective cultural landscape. However, those hungry for something else will most certainly find suitable servings. "I Think I Love You" fits into this mold, but also of note is "August Nights," a somber noire sounding piece not unlike something that would have been produced in the era of Miles Davis's Kind of Blue. It all caps off with the haunting piano based closer "Emmalena's Lullaby." The rattling, shaking sounds of the old organ serves as a reminder that the history of the city isn't always a pretty one.
Jaffe and crew have succeeded in showing off the many multifaceted sides of New Orleans, and produced a disc that showcases a variety of different moods and styles. Furthermore, the engaging nature of the material, combined with the bite size length of the songs, makes this an ideal listen for those who have an interest in jazz but who may struggle with wandering attention spans during longer or more free form jazz works. Despite a spotty track here and there, That's It! most certainly accomplishes Jaffe's goal of making living, breathing, vital music for our time.