The coolest thing about Preservation Hall Jazz Band‘s latest album That’s It – aside from the fact that it’s their first all-original collection – is how diverse and sometimes dark it is. It’s not all upbeat party jams. That’s not to say that their party jams aren’t great fun, but, true to their name, the eight-piece group capture every side of New Orleans, from the Bourbon Street to the ghost town, home of voodoo and Marie Laveau and who knows how many spirits left behind in the wake of the hurricane. The latest incarnation of the band – originally formed in 1961 – plays Brooklyn Bowl on Dec 22 at 9ish. Cover is a very reasonable $20.
Unsurprisingly, the band’s own songwriting reflects their classic New Orleans roots: they put all the new jacks, J. Waddy Ralston, ad nauseum, to shame. What they do isn’t retro, it’s the real thing! The unselfconscious star of this album is singer/clarinetist Charlie Gabriel, who has been around forever and has played with everybody. The album was recorded, appropriately, at Preservation Hall, which happily survived the hurricane; the warm natural reverb and live feel of the recording fit the authenticity of the songs and the band’s jauntily conversational rapport.
The best song on it is August Nights, a haunting minor-key soul ballad set on the “sorry side of the street,” following a series of modulations with moody sax and trumpet solos – noir music doesn’t get any better than this. The Ellingtonian minor-key instrumental Yellow Moon is much the same. There’s a lot of latin grooves here, and this is the creepiest, unless you discount the version at the end of the album sung by Gabriel over an out-of-tune piano to max out the menace. Another bolero-flavored tune, Halfway Right Halfway Wrong, works a surreal, ironic lyric over edgy interchanges between muted trumpet, trombone and clarinet.
The upbeat tunes are good too. The title track pulses along on a gritty, two-chord second-line ensemble vamp lit up by trumpeter Mark Braud’s bluesy blasts. Dear Lord Give Me Strength is less gospel than joyously triumphant, bluesy stroll, with all kinds of interplay between piano and clarinet, trumpet and trombone. Come With Me – a come-on that actually worked, originally written by Gabriel to his future wife, who joined him in New Orleans and ended up staying there – sounds like a Louis Armstrong take on latin music, with a lively dixieland outro.
Likewise, Sugar Plum underscores the proximity of Mexico down the coast, a fat tuba bassline and explosive horns anchoring a bouncy, scurrying Tejano vamp. There’s also the deliciously carnivalesque The Darker It Gets, sung by Gabriel; the proto Screaming Jay Hawkins ghoulabilly soul tune Rattlin’ Bones, and the warmly bouncy blues I Think I Love You. This might be cynical to say, but see these guys before you don’t have another chance.