‘Tricentennial Rag’ Review: A Paean to Traditional Jazz - WSJ
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https://www.wsj.com/articles/tricentennial-rag-review-a-paean-to-traditional-jazz-1530649863
 
‘Tricentennial Rag’ Review: A Paean to Traditional Jazz
New songs by clarinetist Dr. Michael White are grounded in the elements that define a distinct New Orleans style.
Larry Blumenfeld
July 3, 2018 4:31 p.m. ET
Dr. Michael White
Dr. Michael White Photo: Braden Piper
A small sign hangs above the stage of Preservation Hall, the dusty French Quarter auditorium that is a temple of New Orleans jazz: “Traditional requests, $2. Others, $5. ‘Saints,’ $10.” The idea being that it will cost extra to hear the tourist-pleasing warhorse “When the Saints Go Marching In.” That sign reflects a sometimes unspoken tension surrounding the city’s jazz culture—the ways in which it’s presented and received, and the meaning it holds. For its truest practitioners, New Orleans jazz tradition isn’t simply trotted out. It is something to protect, revere and yet still reconsider.
For clarinetist Dr. Michael White (as he is always billed), this tradition represents both an unexpected career path—he began as a Spanish professor at Xavier University of Louisiana, where he now holds an endowed chair in humanities—and a window into the true identities of both him and his native city. As a musician, bandleader and scholar, Dr. White, who is 63 years old, has sought to present New Orleans jazz tradition as a distinct and fully realized art form that “evolved from dancing, and is about community interaction and collective creativity,” he said in an interview.
Dr. White closes his new CD, “Tricentennial Rag” (Basin Street Records), with “Saints.” The album celebrates his city’s 300th anniversary, so perhaps the tune is required in the way that the national anthem precedes a baseball game. Still, Dr. White does save it for last, and plays it in somewhat unconventional fashion: It starts slowly, as a major-key dirge, and includes an improvised duet of clarinet and drums. The up-tempo sections, as sung by trumpeter Gregory Stafford, who is no less a stalwart of New Orleans tradition, with clarinet obbligati from Dr. White adorning each phrase, nevertheless carry an air of joyous ritual.
Anniversary notwithstanding, this album is no history lesson. The 10 tracks that precede “Saints” are original compositions. They’re grounded in the elements that define a distinct and indigenous New Orleans style: complexity as drawn from the sum of simple and precise parts; a sense of cohesion that supersedes individual improvisations; and the use of particular instrumental sounds and a consistent rhythmic orientation to express a feeling unique to the city (if you’ve been there, you understand). The opening track, “Frenchmen Street Strut,” rides a strict 4/4 rhythm—the loose-limbed variety of early jazz pioneers, not the stiff-boned caricature of Dixieland—and is filled with sliding trombone commentary and calls-and-responses. If these sounds speak of bygone days, Dr. White’s songs argue nevertheless for a living language through which he addresses his own life and times. 
And these times are complicated. Practically and philosophically, Dr. White, like his city, is still finding a path back from the levee failures that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (he lost a home and enough instruments and recordings to fill a small museum), and now confronts the disorienting effects of swift gentrification. (Jelly Roll Morton, a founding architect of local jazz tradition, spent his youth on Frenchmen Street; another stretch of that street, a locus of current nightlife, now often seems like a watered-down commercial version of that which Dr. White reveres.) Still, New Orleans retains its lure for musicians from other places, many in earnest search of tradition. The sweet-toned muted cornet sound on three tracks here is that of Shaye Cohn, a 35-year-old former classical pianist from the Boston area. On the title track, she fits right in alongside Dr. White and veteran New Orleans players such as banjoist Detroit A. Brooks. 
“I Saw Jesus Standing in the Water,” an original song in the style of an up-tempo hymn, is especially revealing. Mr. Stafford sings a passage, “I went down to the shore / And I heard a mighty roar/And that’s when things changed forever more.” With these lyrics, Dr. White alludes to several things: the angry water of Lake Pontchartrain before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans; the prayers that have sustained him since; the sound of clarinetist George Lewis, which arrived as a revelation when he first heard it on a recording decades ago; and the great body of indigenous New Orleans music that by now forms Dr. White’s clearest guiding faith.
--Mr. Blumenfeld writes about jazz and Afro-Latin music for the Journal.
 
 
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