Saturday, September 1, 2012

Anyone who spends any time contemplating New Orleans' music history eventually is likely to encounter the phenomenon of Preservation Hall. This was a run down space on St. Peter's Street in the French Quarter taken over by an artist who was using it as gallery space, then in the 1950's decided to make it available as a venue for the adherents of pre-bop New Orleans jazz, a lot of them veterans of bands that were active in the 20's and 30's.

Before I started acquainting myself with Preservation Hall, I'd assumed it was A band per se - one where members had quit or passed away over the years and then were replace by new members but I've finally come to realize that it was initially a venue where a variety of bands performed -- some of them particular units per se and others one off sessions by whoever showed up that night; as well as admixtures of the two.

In the 1960's Allan Jaffe was coaxed into taking over and made it into fascinating umbrella organization several Preservation Hall Jazz Band line-ups being assembled and maintained and utilized for various purposes with one outfit regularly performing at the Hall itself while others would tour nationally and internationally.

My interest actually stemmed from trying to track down a recording of "Oh Didn't He Ramble" a traditional tune played at New Orleans funerals with a wonderfully macabre and mystifying lyric: "Didn't he ramble, ramble. Ramble all around. In and out the town. Rambled till the butcher cut him down." It's never explained who the butcher is or why he cut the poor man down. Clearly we're talking Grim Reaper here but one suspects that there could be a reference to a particular, now long forgotten, incident behind it. Ah well - another worm hole to crawl down!

The only version I owned was by ex Fairport Convention guitarist Ashley Hutchings and while it's a rousing knees only made me long for something outta NOLA itself even more. Looking online I found a version included on Preservation Hall Jazz Band's "New Orleans Vol IV" for $3. I read a fair amount of disparaging buyer reviews, knocking these "slick" and "anemic" performances and touting the 50's recordings that Neshui Ertegun (Ahmet's older brother) had done and some local releases that came afterwards. But those cost considerably more and $3 seemed like the right price point to get my toes wet with -- and here was "Oh, Didn't He Ramble."

When I got the CD in the mail -- I was pretty stoked, threw it right on the changer and was, entirely entranced. A lot of these players were old buzzards at the time and sound like it -- but SALTY old buzzards with a million musical tricks up their sleeves and who'd been LIVING the life these songs depict from youth through to their old age. It was pretty fuh'in delectable. I quickly picked up a cheap copy of "New Orleans Vol. 1" and was similarly charmed.

I started filling the changer with a mix of Preservation Hall, Kermit-era Rebirth, Eureka Brass Band, Treme Brass Band (the '95 all-star line up that mixes old timers with their most ardent young acolytes - including Ruffins and Trombone Shorty's brother James Andrews among others), Lil Rascals, etc. and get to hear how various musical ideas and traditions are maintained while evolving over the decades -- which is one of the central characteristics of the NOLA musical experience as far as this Yankee can tell. And the historian and music geek in me is continually thrilled and fascinated getting to experience music that is so powerfully part of a continuum, reliant on its context and community in a way most commercial music and even underground music scenes just are not.

Recently a friend of mine sent me a promo of a new 4 CD anthology of Preservation Hall Jazz Band recordings and even the just the burns with white paper info sheets are pretty sweet coz of the music contained therein -- a comprehensive survey of the back catalogue of this brand which includes the recordings Ertegun had made, the local releases that came before the CBS then Sony releases, the indie stuff that's happened since. Cunningly they've mixed up the repertoire instead of organizing it in chronological order so that old and new sit side by side and honestly it's hard to discern which dates from when without looking at the notes with a few notable exceptions when special guests like Tom Waits or Del McCoury or Andrew Bird appear. And while the idea of injecting big and apparently incongruous "names" into a tradition-rooted project like this appears like heresy -- honestly Waits does a terrific and totally credible version of the old Creole dance tune "Tootie Ma Is A Big Fine Thing" ...even compared to Danny Barker's version from the 40's which has been in regular rotation 'round this house since that fateful day that "Jazz A'La Creole" arrived (this being the record that Antoine Batiste grabs to take with him in the scene where his family is about to evacuate pre-Katrina -- during the flashback in the season finale of "Treme")

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