Start describing New Orleans' musical history and you may sound pompous in spite of yourself, so loaded is the subject with evolutionary leaps, esoteric traditions and ostentatious egos. The multigenerational Preservation Hall Jazz Band not only guards the momentous compositions and musical forms that gave birth to jazz, but also keeps the music fresh and open to new possibilities. After all, New Orleans is a place where songs cannot be separated from the public sphere, a reminder that music would be an inescapable part of our celebrations and rituals even if every club and record label on Earth vanished tomorrow.
Last fall, the band recorded That's It, the first album of all-original material in their 50-year history. Co-produced by Jim James, it's due for a summer release. Tuba player and creative director Ben Jaffe, whose father co-founded the band and its namesake French Quarter venue, spoke with me before the band's April 11 show at the Stoughton Opera House. He was reluctant to describe the new tunes in much detail, but said audiences at the live shows think the new material meshes with the band's songbook of New Orleans standards.
For most jazz artists, there's a balance between being an interpreter and being a composer. In making the album, what did you learn about yourselves as composers?
Every jazz musician that I know is a natural composer by virtue of what we do. You could literally sit down and take eight bars of a solo by [current Preservation Hall clarinet player] Charlie Gabriel and have a melody. You don't just isolate a portion of your time for songwriting. You allocate a portion of your time all the time for songwriting, and for practicing, and for living. It came very easily to us as a band to compose songs because we live inside of certain forms and a certain style of music, so the song tells you how long it's going to be and how many bars it's going to be and how many choruses and how many verses and when do you go to the bridge.
We actually got to work with a couple of amazing songwriters who helped us create songs in the very traditional sense, the 1920s sense, where you only have three and a half minutes on a 78 to create a song with a beginning, middle and end.
In addition to co-producing the album with Jim James, who else did you collaborate with?
I got to work with Dan Wilson and Chris Stapleton. Dan Wilson wrote that huge Adele song "Someone Like You." He thinks like a pop artist, but so did Louis Armstrong. A lot of people don't realize that with Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver, you're talking about the Jay-Z and Kanye West of the day. I also got to work with Paul Williams, who wrote "Rainbow Connection" for The Muppet Movie.
It sounds like much of this process was new to the band. How will that shape the group's future in the long run?
Over the course of our session, we recorded 17 songs [11 of which are on the final album]. Toward the end, there were songs that we started recording that almost felt like [another] album. It felt like we finished the album the first half of the session, and the second half of the session we recorded these other compositions that felt like the next evolution of the band.
The fact that they are original compositions, it feels better to me when we don't actually tell people they're original compositions. It shouldn't matter. At the end of the day, I just want people to say, "Of course this is Preservation Hall, and of course this is what they're doing."