When you’re reviewing an entity that has been awarded the American Medal of Art, it’s hard to know where to start (well, apart from sharing that very fact with you, of course). The long and short of it is that Preservation Hall Jazz Band is the banner under which numerous groups tour America and beyond (giving more than 150 shows a year) to nurture and perpetuate New Orleans jazz. Preservation Hall itself is a venue established in 1961 to give musicians from the city somewhere to play and St. Peter & 57th St is a recording of the concert given earlier this year by Preservation Hall Jazz Band and (very) special guests at Carnegie Hall to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Preservation Hall. The guests on the evening included luminaries from almost every kind of American music: Yasiin Bey (y’all know the name by now, right?), My Morning Jacket, tUnE-yArDs, The Blind Boys Of Alabama, Steve Earle, Tao Seeger, Allen Toussaint and more.
If the American Medal of Art hadn’t, those names should really tell you all you need to know about the quality on display here. Moreover, you should already know what the music they make sounds like. Call it what you want, New Orleans jazz, dixie, bluegrass – this is music so engrained in American culture, familiar and beloved the world over, that while you might not know every song, you’ll recognise the style immediately. But what the Preservation Hall Jazz Band bring to every song is an exuberance and panache that turns what might be dismissed as ‘traditional music’ fit for a museum into dance music made and performed for shaking your foot to, if not your booty. “Tootie Ma”, the earliest known Mardi Gras song, is a bass-heavy second line monster, while “El Manicero” is a light Latin number that adds some salsa swing to the proceedings.
Which is entirely fitting, because aside from preserving the music of New Orleans, the Preservation Hall Jazz band are just as keen to preserve its spirit as music to celebrate life in all its glorious variety – and above all, its status as dance music. That’s why the decision to release a live album of this concert is such an inspired decisions, as it drips with the passion of the crowd and performers. The whoops when the sousaphone drops in on “St James Infirmary,” the cheers and the deafening applause for every track tell you much more eloquently than words how the evening went down.
And that’s really the magic of this album and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band – they’re keeping this music alive in people’s minds and record players (and doing important work for the city and musicians of New Orleans too). This is the music that inspired and influenced so much of the music that you and I love given new life. Tao Seeger has suggested that this is “the pinnacle of American folk music,” a claim given credence by the range and quality of guests on St. Peter & 57th St, who show just how broad (and deep) the appeal of the PHCB runs. As Allen Toussaint proclaims on “Preservation Hall Jazz Band,” this group “put pep in my step, and pride in my stride.” And they swing like only the second line can. All in all, it’s a cause for celebration (and fifty more years of Preservation Hall).
- Will Georgi