Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ben Jaffe of Preservation Hall Jazz Band Reflects on 50 Years of Preservation Hall

This week marks the release of two spectacular recordings of very different breadth and scope celebrating the 50th Anniversary of New Orleans' Preservation Hall: The Preservation Hall 50th Anniversary Collection box set and the live album St. Peter & 57th St.

The Preservation Hall 50th Anniversary Collection is an expansive 4-CD, 58-track box set spanning the history of The Preservation Hall Jazz Band since 1962. This incredible box set traces the rich history of Preservation Hall from the earliest recordings captured by Nesushi Ertegun, while collecting some treasures from the group's extensive discography. There are also unearthed, previously unreleased recordings recovered from Allen Toussaints's Sea Saint Studios, as well as an abundance of selections that trace the band's legacy throughout the years, up to and including their present lineup.

As if that wasn't enough to entice newcomers and longtime fans alike, there are also some stellar tunes that showcase the band's sense of New Orleans-style familial inclusiveness and love of community. Look no further than the performances which feature PHJB throwing it all down with such artists and friends as The Del McCoury Band, Tom Waits, Ritchie Havens, Pete Seeger, Andrew Bird, and Yim Yames.

St. Peter & 57th St. is PHJB's new live album capturing their 50th anniversary concert celebration at Carnegie Hall earlier this year. The set serves as a great introduction for new listeners, as well as a highly-enjoyable set for fans of New Orleans' rich musical history. It is simply an irresistible listen, and a gift to all of us who never want the party to stop (just press repeat, repeat, repeat!). Much like The Preservation Hall 50th Anniversary Collection, St. Peter & 57th St. includes an impressive list of guests, friends, and long-time collaborators throughout.

I recently had the opportunity to ask PHJB's Ben Jaffee about these releases and what they mean to him as Preservation Hall celebrates its 50 years of sharing some of the absolute best of New Orleans' music, spirit, energy, and love to people everywhere.

The Preservation Hall 50th Anniversary Collection box set draws from 19 albums, which seems like quite a challenge to encapsulate on 4 CDs!

Ben Jaffe:
The collection could have been 19 CD'S! Choosing the selections was a very labor-intensive process. It was also very emotionally taxing and incredibly time consuming.  Fortunately, I am intimately familiar with most of the PHJB recordings.

I knew there was other material out there, I just needed to track it down. There was a bit of "Sherlocking" going on with some of the older master tapes. But I had no idea what was on some of the early sessions my dad produced.

I wanted the collection to reflect the history of the band, but at the same time not be an academic study of Preservation Hall. It is very important to me that the collection is fun! Putting the tracks in the right order was like creating the ultimate PHJB playlist.

The set includes 5 previously unreleased tracks that were recorded at Alan Toussaint's Sea-Saint Studios.

Ben: Yes, I was surprised that there were even some unreleased tracks around. My dad was a frugal fellow. He didn't waste time in the studio.  If something didn't work, he rewound the tape and did the take again or recorded a different song altogether.  I didn't even know there were unreleased songs. There wasn't a master list of tracks recorded on the session, so it was only during the exploration period that I started uncovering songs that I had never heard.

PHJB plays around 100 shows a year and performs across the US and internationally. I'd like to ask you what it means to you to be sharing the music of New Orleans with such a wide variety of listeners?

Ben: Playing music is one of the great joys in life. To be able to effect another human being through music is a beautiful gift. I truly believe our music makes the world a better place. I wish more people could experience us because more people would be happy!

The new PHJB live album, St. Peter & 57th St. was recorded at Carnegie Hall, commemorating the PHJB's 50th Anniversary. Can you describe the band's decision to include such an impressive list of guests to join in?

Ben: We invited guests that we had a relationship with. Musicians who have contributed to New Orleans' past, present, and future. All of the guests at Carnegie are a member of our extended family. It was really like a big family reunion onstage. 

How did these artists get involved?

Ben: There is a different story behind our relationship with every artist that appeared at Carnegie Hall. I've known Trombone Shorty since before he was born. My first band was with his older brother, The Treme Allstars. There's a story behind each relationship. This wasn't all just cooked up in a lab somewhere. Everyone who played with us at Carnegie has a relationship to Preservation Hall and New Orleans. 

How do you select which songs to play together?

Ben: Every artist is different and every process was unique. There was no formula for choosing repertoire. For example, a big "A-ha" moment for me was when I met Mr. Del McCoury and started learning more about the history of bluegrass and Bill Monroe and the connection between bluegrass and New Orleans Jazz. I had no idea that one of Bill Monroe's signature songs was based on a Jelly Roll Morton composition called "Milenberg Joys". In fact, Del didn't know that it was a song that we played!

Can you describe the band's philosophy behind its collaborations?

Ben: Well, there's a story behind every collaboration. What makes these performances so special to us is that they grew out of friendships and mutual respect. On the surface, it's hard to find any connection between Yasin Bey, Allen Toussaint, Trombone Shorty, and Preservation Hall. Yet when we all play together, you can see, hear, and feel that we all come from the same soul.

I heard that there is a Preservation Hall set to open on the west coast?

Ben: It's actually in San Francisco and it's opening its doors for a series of concerts in October. It's housed in an old chapel in one of San Francisco's oldest neighborhoods called The Mission. It's a monument to great American music and Preservation Hall. I have big expectations and big plans for the space, so stay tuned! 

What's next for you and PHJB in 2012?

Ben: We're planning a trip to Mars in December. Just kidding! We'll keep doing what we do: making great music, playing at Preservation Hall, and eating red beans every Monday!

We're also about to begin recording our next project in November, which is always an adventure! Sometimes you start down a path and you don't know where it's going to take you. That's all part of the fun of what we do. It's always an adventure and it's always a good time.

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