Ever since taking the reins of operating Preservation Hall — New Orleans’ shrine to the sources of music that coalesced into the earliest form of jazz — artistic director Ben Jaffe, son of Allan and Sandra Jaffe, has insisted it is entirely possible to change the band lineup, change the band’s repertoire, change performance venues and dramatically change the band’s audience demographics without ever once endangering the inheritance of tradition established in 1961 when his parents had just conceived of something they wound up calling Preservation Hall. As he writes in the liner notes to this historic collection: “I get great pleasure out of a song that has been interpreted, reinterpreted and performed for years while remaining as fresh as the day it was born … That’s what music does, it stretches time, it overlaps traditions, it challenges history … [And as this collection demonstrates], New Orleans Music (sic) remains just as meaningful today, vital and full of life. It can be happy and joyous; it can be sad and mournful. It has no language barrier, and it delivers a universal message that we, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, carry with us wherever we travel.”
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For many listeners, the “classic” era of Preservation Hall occurred during the 1970s and ‘80s when the touring band lineup, led by brothers Percy Humphrey on trumpet and Willie Humphrey on clarinet, remained fairly stable. It was during this time that Columbia Records produced a series of four albums with the touring band that comprises, for those listeners, the band’s essential discography. But classic eras, like most intellectual constructions, tend to distort the truth. Taking a broader view, Ben Jaffe started the 50th anniversary project by sending Sony Legacy a sampling of 100 songs culled from early ’60s albums produced by the Hall through recent guest star and collaborative efforts. He says he envisioned “a mosaic-style sampling, like something I might do if I were programming a four-hour retrospective for WWOZ.” Finally, with assistance from Sony Legacy producer Michael Cuscuna, Jaffe’s original picks were narrowed down to roughly 60 on four consecutive discs.
While no conscious attempt has been made to curate each of the CDs thematically, even a cursory listening makes it clear that the first is meant as a kind of condensed overview, beginning with a 1972 track of Allan Jaffe introducing the members of the band and winding up with “Just a Little While to Stay Here” from a classic 1981 release; other tracks include the Kinks’ “Complicated Life,” from a 2006 release, and “We Shall Overcome” from the 2009 all-star Preservation release. Discs Two and Three delve into the Preservation Hall Jazz Band catalog more deeply, with old-fashioned love songs setting the tone on Disc Two and the gospel repertoire lending color to Disc Three. The fourth serves as the grand-finale ride out, opening with Tom Waits doing “Tootie Ma Is a Big Fine Thing,” featuring the Del McCoury Band on “One More ‘Fore I Die” and Richie Havens on “Trouble in Mind,” written by New Orleans native Richard M. Jones. For the impatient, Discs One and Four might suffice. For those interested in a deeper understanding of New Orleans’ native folk music, all four discs require repeated listening.