As much as famous folks like Wynton Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. have burnished the city of New Orleans’ role in jazz, they didn’t do it by playing in the style that made the city famous.
Enter Michael White, beginning with a career-making sideman turn on Wynton’s 1989 recording Majesty of the Blues. Seemingly untouched by the successive waves of R&B, soul, funk and hip hop, White’s solo moments on that record harkened back to an earlier time — a much, much earlier time. And he was playing a period-piece instrument in the clarinet, to boot.
Just as importantly, however, while he continued to appear alongside Marsalis even while releasing a series of solo recordings, White didn’t succumb to the city’s cliched Bourbon Street sight-seeing impulses — that is, either to play up the washed-out Dixieland angle, or to follow in the footsteps of popular newer outfits like Rebirth or the Dirty Fozen in the marching-band style. White’s was a wider, deeper vision: He’s unreconstituted wonder, yet at the same time unafraid of mixing it up.
So, yeah, White’s records, unlike Marsalis’ sometimes too-studious efforts, often include all of the found-art looseness — the ragged, yet intuitive ensemble playing; a wide-eyed joyfulness that goes beyond the printed scores — which helped define the city’s tradition in the first place. But also, as with Adventures in New Orleans Jazz, Part 1, something more.
White’s roving eye ensures that his fifth project for Basin Street Records never falls into idiomatic lecturing. How could it with such adventurous song selections as the Paul Simon track “Take Me to the Mardi Gras?” Elsewhere, White adds new wrinkles to ageless tunes like “House of the Rising Sun,” Mahalia Jackson’s “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” — the first of which includes a stirring duet with banjo player Detroit Brooks. The last, played solo, is given a devastating context by the album’s liner notes: Adventures is dedicated “to the memory of my mother and best friend, Mrs. Helen Forcia White (1922-2009).”
White also explores New Orleans’ often-overlooked ancestral African and island influences, with his sometimes otherworldly clarinet as a tour guide. Adventures opens with “West African Strut,” which includes a traditional thumb piano (sort of an African forefather to the xylophone), then seques directly into “Pata Pata” by the legendary South African chanteuse Meriam Makeba. Later, he delves in Bob Marley’s “One Love,” giving a tip of the hat to Jamaica, then offers a nearly seven-minute “Haitian Celebration.” The album, performed alongside a crack group of musicians that includes trombonist Lucien Barbarin, trumpeter Wendell Brunious, pianist Steve Pistorius and drummer Herman LeBeaux, also includes four of White’s own compositions — a list topped by the boozy delight “I’m Gonna Hoodoo to Get Your Love,” with guest vocals by Thais Clark.
White, in tone and in song selection, brilliantly moves outside of convention — even as he celebrates foundation-building forms from long ago. This isn’t the simple, if boisterous, sounds that pour out of every tourist-trap along the entertainment district, but a sweepingly inclusive reimagining of New Orleans’ legacy music.