Title: Tricentennial Rag
Artist: Dr. Michael White
Label: Basin Street
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: June 29, 2018
This year the city of New Orleans is celebrating its 300th anniversary (1718-2018) and acclaimed clarinetist, Dr. Michael White, set out to commemorate the occasion by paying tribute to the city’s most important original musical contribution. Of course we’re talking about jazz. Birthed from the rhythms of Congo Square and gestated in the French Quarter over 100 years ago, the genre is an indelible part of the African American experience in NOLA and beyond.
New Orleans born and bred, White has been immersed in the city’s music scene for decades and holds numerous distinctions, including Heritage Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and recipient of the Jazz Hero Award from the Jazz Journalists Association of America. Not only is he a virtuoso on his instrument, but White is also a composer of note as well as a historian and educator who has long been championing NOLA’s jazz heritage.
On Tricentennial Rag, White offers ten original compositions, many inspired by early jazz musicians and traditional styles, but with a contemporary twist. Paying homage to the street where Jelly Roll Morton spent his childhood, “Frenchmen Street Strut” opens the album. There’s a wonderful interplay on this track between White, Shaye Cohn on cornet, and David L. Harris on trombone, while Detroit A. Brooks’s banjo solo is a further connection to the African roots of jazz. White takes over on “Blues on the Bayou,” a showcase for clarinet that he performs with aplomb, stretching out the blue notes. The mid-tempo title track is a modern take on ragtime, full of interesting modulations and solo turns with hints of R&B-styled melismas. Kicking off with a snare solo signaling the start of Carnival, “On Mardi Gras Day” is song celebrating Mardi Gras Indians and the Zulu parade with vocals by Gregory Stafford (who doubles on trumpet).
“I Saw Jesus Standing in the Water” might seem like a departure—the song connects to themes from the black church but musically doesn’t stray far from traditionl jazz. Other highlights include the clarinet moans of “Loneliness” and the bluesy tribute to “Sassy Creole Woman.” The album closes with the only non-original song—a fantastic rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” that’s performed in a wholly original manner with the band changing tempos and swapping solos—this time with Seva Venet on banjo. I must also give a shoutout to Steve Pistorius, the pianist for all but one track, who is given ample opportunities to showcase his virtuosity.
Who better to celebrate NOLA as the cradle of jazz than Dr. Michael White, one of the leading authorities of the traditional New Orleans style. He proves this again and again on Tricentennial Rag, keeping the music fresh and tasty with delicious licks and righteous rags that take NOLA’s jazz traditions into the 21st century.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss