Writing songs with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band
Just returned to LA from New Orleans. My first visit there since – hmmm, 1999? ’98? Anyway, it seems like a long time ago, for me and definitely for the City of New Orleans which has lived several lifetimes since then. I went back to create some new songs with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
The band’s leader, Ben Jaffe, and I had been brainstorming how to go about this collaboration for a few months. Ben has for several years been figuring out interesting ways for the PHJB to collaborate with contemporary musical artists, and maybe he thought that I would bring a contemporary flavor to songs for the band to play. But I immediately started thinking about writing some songs that could partake of both worlds, and hopefully have the timeless quality I love in songs.
The Pres Hall Band has a lot of different singers associated with them, from their amazing saxophonist Clint Maedgen, to bluegrass master Del McCoury. And the band has cut tracks with Andrew Bird, Tom Waits and Jim James. But the voice that has beguiled me the most on their recordings is that of clarinet-master Charlie Gabriel. I started thinking it would be really cool to try to write some songs for Charlie to sing. I also loved the idea of trying to write for the voice of someone in his 80s. Pop music is so youth-obsessed that record labels look on a 26-year-old as dangerously old. I want to make music with geniuses of all stripes.
Then I had the idea of inviting Chris Stapleton, a songwriter and performer from Nashville, to join us in the writing. I had done a show with Chris, and his soulfulness of voice was counterbalanced by a wicked humor in his lyrics. Somehow that seemed like the right balance.
I learned how to play the fretless bass in high school, tried to sound like Jaco Pastorius. I played rock when there was no one to play jazz with, but listened mostly to jazz through my late teens. I really thought I was going to be a jazz musician when I “grew up.” But one evening in a used-clothing store in New York, I heard Elvis Costello’s song “Pump It Up.” That song instantly made me want to join a rock band, and that’s what I did.
So, for me, jamming with Charlie Gabriel, Rickie Monie, Clint Maedgen and Ben Jaffe at the Preservation Hall for three afternoons was like a Sunday jazzer’s dream. On the guitar, I mostly stayed out of the way, but still Charlie turned around a few times and told me, “Don’t play that chord! Play this one instead,” and fluttered an arpeggio on the clarinet. You don’t argue with an 81 year old jazzer with an ax in his hand. (Musos, the chord substitution in question is to play a flat-II-7 instead of a V7. Very nice, almost like a metal chord.) Of course, I also had something to offer – I think at least two of the six songs Ben, Chris and I wrote are great, and the rest are pretty darn good. Hopefully they’ll make the next PHJB album.
When our time was done and Ben Jaffe said farewell, he told me that the band’s next gig was in San Francisco, at the temporary Preservation Hall West. With Elvis Costello.