The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, perhaps the very face of New Orleans music, shoulders a heavy burden on “The Hurricane Sessions” in trying to convey the sweeping emotions surrounding Katrina.
So much happened away from those familiar wooden benches at 726 St. Peter St. in the dusty room known as Preservation Hall. In fact, that’s why this record almost never got made.
Producer Ben Jaffe, son of the big band’s founder Allan Jaffe, saved the tapes from an on-going project halted by the storm, then completed “The Hurricane Sessions” with select new takes as well as older compositions in the same vein.
The results, included in a boxed set released last summer called “Made in New Orleans,” are at once tender, funny and sad. Capturing all of that is the group’s — and the younger Jaffe’s — towering achievement. They put out the perfect Mardi Gras record for the post-Katrina era. It acknowledges everything that came before, even while leading the way into happier times.
“The Hurricane Sessions” CD gets underway with a crying cornet from DeDe Pierce, followed by Billie Pierce’s languid, rolling river rhythms at the piano — instantly setting a feeling of deep sorrow, though it’s quietly resolute. “I thought about my sweet baby, just to keep from crying,” Billie Pierce sings in this 1972 performance. “I’m worried now — though I won’t be worried long.”
And, as is the way of New Orleans, that’s true: “Eh La Ba” (also from 1972, in a concert at Stanford University) comes crashing in next. Willie Humphrey’s clarinet makes a clarion call for Mardi Gras revelry, followed by a call-and-response chorus that is straight from the slanted streets of the French Quarter. A trio of songs from 2005-06, all recorded in that historic Crescent City district, follows — beginning with the simply swinging “Apple Tree.”
John Brunious plays it straight Satchmo (that’s a good thing) on trumpet and vocals. He subsequently steps back into the rollicking, then yelping collective for “Complicated Life,” a rag that includes driving turns by tenor man Ernest “Doc” Watson and vocalist Clint Maedgen — who leads a booming hi-hee-hi chorus. That sets up well for Brunious’ inevitable rendition of “Do You Know What It Means Miss New Orleans,” a staple both in Preservation Hall Jazz Band shows — but also on any Katrina-themed recording, it seems. Put down in a spare arrangement, with Rickie Monie on piano, it’s like red beans: Elegant in its simplicity, and of no time.
A searing 1959 version of “Lord, I Don’t Want To Be Buried,” featuring Sister Gertrude Morgan, provides the counterbalance to such niceties. It’s a reminder of the stark realities that so many faced down in the wake of the storm. “Over in the Gloryland,” an interesting project, then features new Carl LeBlanc vocals laid over a driving Dixieland performance from 30 years before. Humphrey, this inventive, emotional player, is captured in full flight. He’s followed by rumbling turns from trombonist Frank Demond and pianist Sing Miller. Narvin Kimball’s sprite banjo solo is appropriately heavenly.
The idea is executed even more successfully later when Morgan returns, in a 1959 recording, to add emotional heft to this breezy 2005 rendition of “Blow Wind Blow.” LeBlanc, playing banjo too, is also featured on a scatty new “Heebie Jeebies” — part of five recordings in a row done in 2005-06. Each is a smaller-band performance, including “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” — from their aptly named subgroup, the Preservation Hall Hot Four — and this sweet and bawdy blues called “Who Threw The Whiskey in the Well.”
“The Hurricane Sessions” closes with another delicious dichotomy: Miller’s slow, grieving take on “Precious Lord,” from 1970, then the new and aptly placed “Last Chance to Dance” — where we have Brunious merrily promising to the “tear the roof off the sucker.” Even at the end, we find that brilliant ebb and flow. This was a delicate balance, and hard to do well. Like the curious commingling of smells in the Quarter, “The Hurricane Sessions” could have been as inviting as au jus but then just as quickly smack of something left out too long. In a time when almost nothing else was, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band — a group of savvy vets given a boost here by brilliant sequencing — made it look easy.
There’s some neat stuff included with “Made In New Orleans,” a memorabilia-filled 2007 boxed set by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band — and not just the 17 tracks chronicling decades of collective brilliance that make up “The Hurricane Sessions.” Inside, you’ll find a treasure trove of old postcards, a set list, a Preservation Hall lanyard, reproductions of archival photos, and some cool inserts from older CDs, among other things. This is a pricey package, retailing at upwards of $70, but the extras make it worthwhile.