Preserving New Orleans Jazz: Yesterday, Today, and Forever
Preservation Hall opened in New Orleans in 1961 as a center for traditional jazz. Since that time, on almost any given night, veteran musicians gather to play great jazz. You used to be able to hear actual Louie Armstrong bandmates, but fewer remain all the time. The loose-knit Preservation Hall Jazz Band tours and records sporadically over the years, but many fans consider Preservation Hall Hot 4 with Duke Dejan their best record yet.
Preservation Hall Hot 4 with Duke Dejan documents an electrifying night in 1996. But just who is Duke Dejan? Those familiar with New Orleans jazz history recall him as the alto saxophonist/founder of the Olympia Brass Band. Sadly, a major stroke robbed him of his sax ability, but he transitioned fairly well to a jazz vocalist. He was never destined to become the world's greatest singer, but his appearance on four of these ten tracks are symbolic and sentimental. Preservation Hall Hot 4 with Duke Dejan turned out to be his final recording. Brother, what a way to go!
Though he isn't supposed to be the star here, Wendell Brunious steals the show on nearly every song with his brilliant trumpet solos, as well as his vocal reading of "Corrina, Corrina." If he possessed half as much ego as he does style and skill, this project would have been released as a trumpet jazz record under his own name. But then, the same might be said of Don Vappie, Thadeus Richard, and Benjamin Jaffe. Thankfully, they're all content making timeless instrumental jazz where every musician, every note counts. These guys play so tight, you could enjoy the entire disc without even noticing the lack of drums.
By stripping the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to its bare essentials, New Orleans jazz is presented in it’s purest form: swing with sass, old arrangements with new improvisation, blues which affirm. This is plain old great music, the kind everyone everywhere enjoys. Even people who claim to hate jazz love some Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima, Harry Connick Jr. That’s the kind of stuff we’re dealing with here, the whole disc through.
"Corrina, Corrina" is not only a great lead-off, but an instant classic in its own rite. Songs like this have been done so many times, it’s hard to find a new angle. If there is an angle here, it’s that everything is right on. The musicians clearly responded to each other and to the music, without wasting a note.
"I’m Alone Because I Love You" is a good example of Duke Dejan’s charms. He's also great on "I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You)," even quoting a chorus of the Louis Prima's "I’m Just a Gigolo" for grins. Duke's take on "Basin Street Blues" is much more than a standard recitation. He toyed with the lyrics and his band-mates shouted several responses, creating an all-out Crescent City situational comedy. His aged voice, local accent, and one-of-a-kind strutting storytelling make you laugh out loud at the song’s profane subject matter. At a time when most artists try to whitewash New Orleans’ colorful past, the Duke revels in it. Jazz is always best at its most shameless.
"Red Wing" is a fantastic instrumental, somehow possessing a certain Civil War Brass Band feel. "Dinah" is another beloved instrumental, featuring great piano-guitar interplay, anchored as always by Jaffe’s solid bass lines. This music is immediately familiar, even if you've never heard it before.
Guitarist Don Vappie is the definition of discernment. He is ready at all times with hot licks and breaks, but equally content to vamp the chord structures when necessary. His staccato strumming recalls jazz banjo, ala Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens. Vappie also lends his voice to two songs. "Ain't She Sweet," wherein he seeks a buddy's approval of his new lover, bears all the markings of a New Orleans classic: a sly lyric, flamboyant melody and group improvisation. His other lead vocal is "Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams." Something about his voice and the overall sound recording is reminiscent of old-time radio broadcasts. Putumayo World Music included this highlight on their own beautiful New Orleans collection.
In addition to playing bass, Jaffe also wrote the liner notes. He is the son of the Hall's founders and strives to keep it one of the world's most important jazz clubs. In March 2004, he appeared with the Preservation Hall Hot 4 on National Public Radio. He told host Bob Edwards, "The word preservation's a little deceptive because it gives the impression that it's something that's in the past and isn't necessarily alive or exist anymore. New Orleans jazz is something that's very much alive and vibrant and every time it's played it's not a recreation of the past but something very contemporary."
If you're in New Orleans anytime soon--and the troubled city needs us now more than ever--be sure to swing by Preservation Hall for some timeless hot jazz. In the meantime, do yourself a favor and buy this CD immediately.
-David Seymour is a jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.