TVD First Listen: Dr. Michael White—Adventures in New Orleans Jazz Part 1

Clarinetist Dr. Michael White is an important figure in the traditional jazz revival that has been happening in New Orleans for over two decades. His appearance on Wynton Marsalis’ landmark album, Majesty of the Blues was a turning point in the career of the world-famous modern jazz trumpeter and a significant release that paved the way for a new respect for the traditional sounds of New Orleans by a generation influenced by soul, R&B and funk.

That album, which was released on Columbia Records in 1988, re-imagined the traditional jazz of New Orleans with compelling originals including “The New Orleans Function,” a two-part, twenty-two minute musical exposition of the jazz funeral. White’s clarinet cries out during the dirge portion and takes to the heavens during the up tempo section of the piece.

Since then, White has appeared regularly with Marsalis and has released nine solo recordings, five of which have appeared on the local Basin Street Record label including his latest Adventures in New Orleans Jazz Part 1, which comes out today nation wide.

White’s earlier recordings were clearly homages to the greats of the past. But on his last three albums, he has carved out a position as one of the clearest voices of the new generation with originals that extend the reach of traditional jazz and now, with this recording, interpretations that compel the listener to consider New Orleans jazz outside the confines of the idiom.

This contention is clear from the first sounds on the album—a balafone, or African thumb piano, opens White’s original, “West African Strut.” Elsewhere he gives songs by the great South African chanteuse Meriam Makeba, the reggae legend Bob Marley and the iconic American songwriter Paul Simon a thorough reinvention. He even gives the treatment to “The House of the Rising Sun,” which is one of the most recorded songs of all time.

In lesser hands this project could be rife with problems, but with a highly capable crew of local musicians including the trombonist Lucien Barbarin, the trumpeter Wendell Brunious, the pianist Steve Pistorius, and the drummer Herman LeBeaux the project succeeds admirably.

Amid the adventurous song choices are wonderful new songs from the pen of White that mine the tradition without being looking back and a couple of standards of the genre.  Of particular note is the sassy vocal by Thais Clark on White’s, “I’m Gonna Hoodoo to Get Your Love.”

Like his early work with Marsalis, Adventures in New Orleans Jazz Part 1, will take its place on the continuum that has brought traditional jazz from the early music of Johnny Dodds and Sidney Bechet into the modern era. With clear-eyed respect for those that came before him, White has taken the music another step forward.

I look forward to Part 2 of his adventure in New Orleans jazz.

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