Preservation Hall Jazz Band continue to reign as a source of consistency in the world of jazz. Taking their name from the Preservation Hall venue in their native New Orleans’ French Quarter, the collective has consisted of a rotating cast of members since debuting in 1963. As one of the few venues during the time that welcomed both white and black performers, Preservation Hall has a storied history, as does the collective named after it. The current ensemble’s most recent album, That’s It!, is another strong showing from a collective with no bad apples among their dozens of releases. The most recent plays a generally traditional ode to New Orleans jazz, the elements steeped in swing and blues. Production efforts from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James bring a dose of modernity to the recordings, but for the most part That’s It! sounds like a wonderful blast from the past, where modern-day musicians creatively infuse sounds from jazz’s roots into the creative concoctions that emerge today.
The past few years have resulted in an eclectic creative outburst from Preservation Hall Jazz Band, whose current members led by bassist and tuba player Ben Jaffe are increasingly open to infusing other genres into their material. A 2011 release from the collective, American Legacies, even featured jazz-infused bluegrass. Seeing That’s It! retrace the group to its earlier sounds is a breath of fresh air, reminding listeners why the collective is credited among jazz historians as an essential piece of the genre’s history. The clicking piano-based classicism of “Come With Me” is marvelously touching, with a sprightly veteran voice leading a tender arrangement bolstered by a lively arrangement of brass, some squeaky and smooth – but all enjoyable. “What a city you will see, all your dreams will come true in New Orleans,” the voice creaks out, a touching homage to the city they have proudly called home for five decades. Instrumental “Sugar Plum” is as sweet as the name suggests; it’s an old-time jazz arrangement with a variety of brass playing joyously over clinking percussion and a subtle xylophone, adding a slight Latin vibe to the key-based backbone.
The smooth sax on “I Think I Love You”, compounded by an angelic piano and seductive upright bass, is the type of enjoyably linear song that fits well in the middle of jazz revivalist release. A rollicking chorus ensues with the piano gaining new life, with higher-pitched trickles incorporating melodically with the spurts of brass that continue with a resonating smoothness. Contrasting the seductiveness of a love ballad like “I Think I Love You” are celebratory jaunts like “Dear Lord (Give Me Strength)”, a gospel-infused hand-raiser that benefits from lively arrangements despite the predictable and mainly bland gospel lyrics. Still, it stays close to the traditional formula with an added polished fervor, and for that it gets credit. The emphasis is more on the tone of the vocals rather than what they’re saying, and that is properly stressed on “Dear Lord (Give Me Strength)” and the handful of tracks on That’s It! that feature vocals.
The album’s most exotic notes come toward the second half, especially with the exotic gypsy-inspired allure of engrossing instrumental “Yellow Moon” and the grandiose dramatic piano tour-de-force “Emmalena’s Lullaby”, which plays like a somber ghost ballad that resonates through the empty halls of stoic wartime European mansions. It also contains perhaps the album’s most atmospheric and stunning effort, “August Nights”, which flaunts an unbeatably alluring sound that features darkly seductive brass, particularly the trumpet work of Mark Braud. Although an effort like “Halfway Right, Halfway Wrong” plays overly firm and predictable, the bulk of That’s It! is a pure delight, ranging from the bouncy lush draw of “Come With Me” to rich atmospheric bursts on colorful gems like “Yellow Moon” and “Emmalena’s Lullaby”. If you haven’t been introduced to Preservation Hall Jazz Band yet, this is a good opportunity.