Beginning in 1963 several bands began touring under the Preservation Hall Jazz Band name with the intention of spreading New Orleans jazz around the country. Today PHJB has been winnowed down to one group, which has kept roughly the same 14-member line up since 2009. Many members had relatives in earlier incarnations of the band; for example, sousaphone player Ben Jaffe (also the group's current creative director) is the son of the band's previous director, tuba player Allan Jaffe.
When it came time to plan a 50th anniversary tribute concert for the band, it was understood that the show wouldn’t take place at Preservation Hall; the historic New Orleans venue is notoriously small, rarely charges more than $15 for a show, and – perhaps most detrimental to a Mardi Gras-style celebration – doesn’t serve drinks. Many were surprised when they learned the tribute show wouldn’t even take place in New Orleans but rather 1,300 miles northeast at Carnegie Hall. But holding the event in New York made sense; PHJB were on tour when Hurricane Katrina hit and every member of the band lost their homes. Since they couldn’t get back to the Big Easy, they convened in the Big Apple, formulating a plan to continue touring and enlisting fellow musicians to help raise money to help their damaged city. New York sheltered them when their hometown could not.
So PHJB returned the favor, staging a massive Bourbon Street style party in New York on January 7, 2012, where they were joined by a wonderfully varied and universally skilled group of fellow musicians from other New Orleans legends to relatively unknown indie rockers. The highlights of that marvelous evening of music have been compiled on St. Peter and 57th Street (a nod to both Carnegie and Preservation Hall’s addresses). While it’s always hard to capture the excitement and spontaneity of live New Orleans jazz, the album presents a fantastic overview of what the rotating musicians of the PHJB have been doing so well for half a century.
The show kicks off with a beautiful introduction by jazz impresario (and Newport Folk Festival co-founder) George Wein, who then plays piano on the classic George Lewis song “Burgundy Street Blues.” Lewis was a regular at Preservation Hall from its opening in 1961 through his death in 1968, and you can feel his soul in Charlie Gibson’s fantastic clarinet work.
Things pick up as PHJB launches into a jumpy “Bourbon Street Parade,” a song which extols all the wonders of the Big Easy. You can almost see the Mississippi and smell the beignets as trumpeter Mark Braud raves about his hometown and the party gets started. Actor Ed Helms (a darn fine banjo player in his own right) then introduces the Del McCoury Band, who play a ripping version of “One More ‘Fore I Die,” the closing track to the record that they and PHJB released together last year (American Legacies). We can trace the lines between New Orleans jazz and bluegrass (such as Bela Fleck) another time, but Del McCoury ties the two together flawlessly here.
Fellow New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint joins the group on the song “Preservation Hall Jazz Band,” a raucous number that features PHJB’s brass at their best. Toussaint makes a second appearance later on the record, joining Trombone Shorty and Yasiin Bey (the former Mos Def) on a drum-heavy version of the Smokey Johnson Mardi Gras classic “It Ain’t My Fault.”
The PHJB’s reach is seen most clearly on the album’s next two songs, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” and “Bonjour Cousin” featuring indie rockers (and Lafayette natives) Givers. Most known for their insanely happy and percussion-heavy single “Up Up Up,” here all the attention is on singer Tiffany Lamson’s vocals, which run from smoky jazz to beautiful gospel brunch bellow. That voice is contrasted heavily by the next guest, Steve Earle, who sounds more like Dr. John on “Tain’t Nobody’s Business,” an 8-bar blues classic and one of the few non-New Orleans standards on the album.
My Morning Jacket’s Jim James takes us back to Dixie with a two-part version of “St. James Infirmary” (an old English folk song updated and made famous by Louis Armstrong in 1928). Probably the most rock and roll sounding selection, there’s still a heavy dose of clarinet and trumpet which ring and pulse as Jones’ vocals get increasingly desperate. Even on an album that’s one huge jolt of energy, this track manages to stand out.
Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus stretches her pipes on “Careless Love,” a song which has seemingly been recorded by anyone who’s ever set foot in New Orleans. What Garbus lacks in singing abilities she makes up for with pure passion as she channels her inner Bessie Smith and belts out the woman-done-wrong lyrics with pure abandon. Jaffe’s tuba hits the low notes behind her to add emphasis to her sorrow.
Finally, Del McCoury is joined by the Blind Boys of Alabama and the rest of the guests for the closing number, the gospel classic “I’ll Fly Away.” It’s another song has been done a thousand times (even Kanye West has a version) but in the right hands it’s astounding what a wonderful song it can be. Here it’s recorded as a hodgepodge of all things PHJB – the Blind Boys’ verse is a quiet gospel, Del McCoury’s takes on a bluegrass feel with a banjo and mandolin before seguing into a ragtime violin/clarinet duo, and by the time everyone on stage has joined in it’s an infectious, bouncing roller coaster that will thoroughly prevent you from sitting still.
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band will follow St. Peter and 57th Street with a career retrospective album and more touring. It’s vital that artists like these keep the tradition of New Orleans jazz alive, and you couldn’t ask for a better tribute to this legendary institution.