Well, the Lego Wars of 2013 reached fever pitch in my household this morning, when at one point I caught my two-year-old head-banging his brother in the back in an attempt to steal a Duplo train car (why both of my children recognize their own heads as weapons, god only knows!). Luckily, I was listening to this dizzying New Orleans jazz album as said head-banging transpired, which made it very easy for me to imagine my children as a pair of harmlessly squabbling black-and-white cartoon rabbits instead of wild boys savagely clawing at each other for a hunk of plastic with wheels. Or in clearer terms, this record saved me from hitting the Canadian Hunter at 7 AM, although no promises once 5 rolls around.
But let's talk a little bit more about the album. As I have so often mentioned, I don't know much about jazz music (although I did find out that it was originally called "jass" or "ratty" music, according to the website for the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park). However, I CAN research stuff online, which is how I learned that Preservation Hall Jazz Band, as the name suggests, is basically the ever-changing and 50-year-enduring house band for Preservation Hall, which is a musical venue established in NOLA's French Quarter in 1961 with the aim of preserving New Orleans jazz. I also learned that New Orleans jazz (which Wikipedia calls Dixieland, although the Preservation Hall Jazz Band page on the same site strongly rejects the label, saying that Dixieland is "considered as commercial exploitation and distortion of a pure tradition and, therefore, a strict differentiation between the two is made by admirers of what they recognize as 'New Orleans jazz'") needed preserving because, despite its claim to fame as one of the earliest styles of jazz and immense popularity in the early 1900s, the swing music craze of the '30s put many NOLA jazz musicians out of the work. And finally, I can provide the absolute most basic description of this jazz style's traditional sound, which About.com says "incorporated the fast and spirited nature of ragtime, and the use of trumpets, trombones, drums, saxophones, clarinets, banjos, and either a bass or a tuba. Also, contrasting with classical music and ragtime, there was an emphasis on improvisation as opposed to written arrangements." It also included stride piano, which you can read more about on NPR.
Whew! Now that the history lesson is (mostly) over, let's talk some specifics. Preservation Hall was founded by Allan and Sandra Jaffe, and their son, Ben Jaffe, is the Jazz Band's current creative director (he also plays tuba and double bass with the band). Furthermore, an interview with the younger Jaffe at Mod Mobilian fills in the gaps that Wikipedia didn't: although the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has been releasing albums since the '60s, That's It! is their FIRST release to feature entirely-new compositions, or as Jaffe says, "I took a cue from people like Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong who created original material that became part of our musical canon. Now it’s our turn to add to that tradition. It’s a way to keep our traditions from becoming museum pieces. Our music and traditions have to remain relevant or they will die." It was also produced in collaboration with the lead singer of My Morning Jacket, Jim James, and recorded in the Hall itself. And that seems like enough background, so let's get down to the tunes.
So what does this record sound like? Well, although I think the general description of New Orleans jazz that I provided earlier in the post covers the basics, it definitely fails to capture the joyful and unbridled energy that bubbles forth from each track on this album, all the way from the first song, the drum-and-tuba (or possibly sousaphone)-spectacular "That's It", to the last cut, the more downtempo, trembling-piano-based "Emmalena's Lullaby" (note: if you buy this record on Amazon, you will get two additional tracks that I wasn't able to listen to added onto the end). And while pretty much every song on the thing is a standout, I will admit a special fondness for "Dear Lord (Give Me The Strength)", which bears a faint hint of early-rock-'n'-roll classic "Shake, Rattle and Roll" behind its rag-timey piano intro, its shiny blasts of brass, and its upbeat, confessional lyrics ("I've been weak, I've been strong/Well I've done good, but sometimes I did wrong/I played with fire, burned ones I love/But I found redemption, and I've been reborn"). There's also "Rattlin' Bones", a burlesque piece which pitter-patters in on piano and blocky percussion before the trumpet starts tweeting and the shuddering bass notes add a graveyard swagger to the proceedings ("The graveyard bones make a rattlin' sound/The dead get up and start walkin' around"). And last but not least, I also supremely enjoyed the instrumental "Yellow Moon", whose winsome sax and twinkling strings lure the listener to the window, where the rolling drums, humming bass, and more sax show us the moon (not in the same sense that my dad and his friends used to show old ladies "the moon" while driving around Seattle in the late '60s/early '70s, however).
And now that I've conjured that beautiful image, let's wrap things up. Ultimately, this album is extraordinarily pleasant, with a lively spirit and a sense of ambiance and charm that hangs about the room long after the music ceases to play. The brass is blinding, the beats skitter and chirp like the angry squirrels that live on the power lines behind my house, and the piano jams even harder than your office copier. In short, it's a breezy delight. I liked it SO MUCH, in fact, that I'm even going to go ahead and recommend you get the Amazon version, since I'm THAT CONFIDENT the bonus tracks will be spectacular. And even if they aren't, 37.5 minutes of turning children into cartoon rabbits is still a coup in this house, and one I'd happily pay the extra $$ for. Even if it means I can't afford as much Canadian whiskey.