Preservation Hall is synonymous with New Orleans jazz. You remember: That's where Louis Armstrong blew everyone's mind on the shores of the Mississippi and Jelly Roll Morton tickled the ivories not far from Bourbon Street. Well, not really. The venue only seems like it's been around since the birth of ragtime and the Dixieland sound -- it actually opened in 1961, dedicated to giving New Orleans jazz musicians a place to be heard. Regular performers at the hall formed the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and took that mission to the streets, touring the country.
Now Preservation Hall expands its reach with a new record label, whose three debut releases showcase that special N'awlins style of jazz: casual, rhythmic, and a whole lotta fun. Perhaps the biggest achievement here is capturing the crisp, sharp sound of the recordings while still preserving the feel of the club. It's like bringing a bit of Bourbon Street into your living room, without the aromas of vomit and piss.
Early Years culls forty years of performances into a single disc, with most of the recordings having appeared on other releases. The band shines in quick-tempo pieces like "Down by the Riverside," with bright horns weaving melodies while the drum and trombone beat out rhythms as if they're marching in a Mardi Gras parade. The songs are full of call-and-response singing -- everyone is a singer in this band, even if they can't all carry a tune. That's part of the fun.
Shake That Thing, by the newest iteration of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, explores the funkier side of the New Orleans sound. While it nails the groove on traditional tracks like "That Bucket's Got a Hole in It," the band plays it a little too loose on other songs. The youngsters fall flat compared to the best of previous incarnations. But on The Hot Four, the big band is pared down to an intimate quartet driven by Don Vappie's guitar, while Wendell Brunious' crisp trumpet carries the melody on classics such as "Corrina, Corrina," and the late Duke Dejan's rough vocals color the songs with Southern hospitality. If the full band is Bourbon Street at midnight, the quartet is like a sunrise on the banks of the river, and I find the latter more true to the New Orleans vibe.