michael white's new moon
Back to life
by Larry Blumenfeld
NEW ORLEANS IS TWO PLACES NOW: one, loudly welcoming tourists back; the other, a silent stretch of barren homes. There's danger and dislocation around many corners, yet it's hard to feel more secure and connected than while dancing through the streets behind a brass band in a Sunday second line. It's still too soon to fully grasp the effect of the floods that followed Hurricane Katrina. And we've only just begun to hear real echoes of the experience as channeled through music.
Dr. Michael White's Blue Crescent (Basin Street) offers careful musical consideration of questions that are at once highly personal and broadly aesthetic: What did all this mean? How do we move forward without forsaking -- but, rather, by nurturing -- what we once held dear? The album is "not intended to be another trendy 'Katrina CD' or an escape from and cover-up of reality," writes the clarinetist and Xavier University professor in his liner notes.
White has spent the nearly three years since the floods in his own pained state of transition, shuttling between Houston, where he'd relocated, and New Orleans, where he'd kept a trailer near his office at Xavier. (He's since moved back into his childhood home in the Carrollton section of town.) He lost nearly all the contents of his one-story home, including thousands of books and recordings; transcriptions of music from Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Sidney Bechet, and other jazz pioneers; vintage clarinets dating from the 1880s to the 1930s; and photographs and memorabilia, including used banjo strings and reeds tossed off by early 20th-century musical heroes.
Yet the challenge at the heart of this new CD -- how to keep an endangered music alive while staying true to the present moment -- has long occupied White. Even before Katrina, he sensed a gradual fading away of the musical tradition of brass-band players clad in white shirts, ties, and black-banded caps, playing everything from hymns and marches to blues and jazz, always with swinging rhythms, complex group improvisation, and specific three-trumpet harmonies.
"There was something about that sound," White told me last year when I visited his Xavier office, recalling the moment high-school band director Edwin Hampton first played him a 1950s recording of the Olympia Brass Band. He peered over the jagged pile of books and CDs atop his desk -- including the red notebook in which, during the weeks following the hurricane, he'd jotted down the names and whereabouts of colleagues -- and shared more early epiphanies: the first funeral he played with trumpeter Doc Paulin's Brass Band, and the recording he picked up on a whim, by clarinetist George Lewis, that turned out to be his most profound discovery. More recently, over the phone, White confessed that he hadn't written much good music since the floods -- until a December residency at a local artists' retreat, A Studio in the Woods. There, the music flowed from him in torrents. "It was like I came back to life," he said.
The 12 original compositions on White's new CD reflect the range of emotions White sorted through in retreat: the title track's wistful reverie; the prideful confidence of "Majestic Strut"; the celebratory spirit of "Crescent City Calypso"; and the ominous minor-key theme to "Dark Sunshine." White colors his traditional songs with a broad palette of influences. Some are historically minded, as with the Spanish and French Caribbean dance passages of "Ooh La La (Danse Créole)," while others are more experimental, such as the South African harmonies during an ensemble section of that same song.
For Blue Crescent, White assembled longtime members of his Original Liberty Jazz Band,including trumpeter Greg Stafford and trombonist Lucien Barbarin, as well as New Orleans natives who don't often perform with him, such as trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who shines throughout. "I wanted to foster what we have on the streets here every day," White explained, "old friends and new friends sharing their reality." Such musical conversation turns especially deep on "Katrina," a dirge scored for jazz ensemble, and the album's only explicit evocation of tragedy. It's not a traditional dirge, not meant for a brass band. There's no tuba anchoring the music. The band includes both piano and banjo. There's less of the traditional ensemble playing and more individual lines of melody and improvisation, hints of dance-band oriented traditional jazz. White meant this as an amalgam of the musical styles he treasures as much as anything he lost in the storm. "Everybody has their own Katrina story," he said. "The idea was to let that happen musically."
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