When the Kinks recorded “Complicated Life” in 1971, would anyone have believed the Preservation Hall Jazz Band would be doing their tune 35 years later? Talk about kinky! Or what about vocalist/banjo player Carl LeBlanc adding a track in 2006 to a wonderful 1976 version of “Over in the Gloryland” that was never released? LeBlanc introduces a clarinet solo by the late Willy Humphrey that sounds so funky and so post-Katrina New Orleans that Humphrey might have recorded it yesterday. The added track was produced by Ben Jaffe, Creative Director of Preservation Hall and son of its founder, Allen Jaffe who produced the original 30 years ago.
Not exactly Natalie and Nat King Cole, perhaps, but these are just two of the many surprises you’ll find in this remarkable compilation of music, video footage and memorabilia ranging from carnival doubloons to calling cards to old publicity photos that are part of Made in New Orleans: the Hurricane Sessions. That’s the overall title for these individually produced box sets put together by Jaffe and his staff in what may be the most ambitious multimedia package ever offered for sale in the jazz world.
The original idea was to produce something unique to mark the 45th anniversary of Preservation Hall in 2006. But after Katrina, the project went through a dramatic change. Soon after the disaster, Jaffe went to Sea-Saint Studio where some of this material was stored. The famed studio had been flooded with eight feet of water, so the end product is based on tapes he salvaged from above that water line along with other archival resources that were in danger of being lost elsewhere. The purpose of the project also changed.
Now, like so much else in New Orleans, it is linked forever to the tragedy our city and our people endured. This is no nickel-and-dime offering. The basic package sells for $80 with a special limited edition of 504 copies that go for $150. The limited edition includes many documentary original items from Preservation Hall’s past including a seven-inch EP that was never released and old press photos of former members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Each box, Jaffe says, will have different photos so every package will be different.
These elements work together remarkably. No individual part even hints at the impact of the whole production. When listening to the CD alone, I found many interesting vocals but not much of the ensemble playing that has always been a trademark of Preservation Hall and of early New Orleans jazz. That’s not to say the CD music isn’t fascinating. It ranges from a spiritual with the prescient title “Lord I Don’t Want to be Buried” recorded in 1959 by Sister Gertrude Morgan to one of two versions of “Complicated Life” featuring present day Preservation Hall vocalist Clint Maedgen. The other version, a DVD music video by filmmaker Henry Griffin shows Maedgen singing while doing, what until recently earned his living, serving as a bicycle delivery boy for Fiorella’s in the French Quarter.
But what about that problem of ensemble jazz? Also on the DVD is a performance of “Pretty Red Wing” done by George Lewis and band that concludes with nine completely ensemble choruses that keep getting hotter and hotter. So does this offering meet its goals, or, to put it more directly, is it worth the bucks? With the music alone, probably no. But there’s so much more here than the music. The emotional impact of seeing as well as hearing all this stuff together makes it a tough call and a very personal one. I bought one of the limited edition sets myself, but I bought it for what this project says to me, not, to be honest, for any reason I can put in writing for you.