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Dr. Michael White: Blue Crescent

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New Orleans clarinetist Dr. Michael White got his Ph.D. in foreign languages, not music, but he is nevertheless a scholar, and his approach to his first album since Hurricane Katrina was carefully thought out. “Blue Crescent is not intended to be another trendy ‘Katrina CD’ or an escape from and cover up of reality,” he writes in his extensive liner notes. “Instead the purpose here is to present an original traditional jazz impression of New Orleans life and people from various points in history into the present.”

That purpose was fulfilled by Dr. White’s composition of a batch of new tunes during his December 2007 residence at the artist retreat called A Studio in the Woods, followed by a recording session featuring 10 other New Orleans musicians. Those songs (along with renditions of “St. Louis Blues” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”) are very much in the tradition of New Orleans jazz; they often sound like they could have been composed in 1907 as easily as 2007. The sequence strictly alternates uptempo dance numbers with slow ballads and blues, starting with “Comme Ci Comme Ça,” which features a White vocal in French. His most expressive performances as a clarinetist are the selections that seem to have the closest ties to his native city’s tragedy, “Blue Crescent” and “Katrina,” the latter even beginning with the sound of torrential rain and destruction. (Nicholas Payton’s trumpet work is equally emphatic here.)

But just as this is a disc that attempts to take “a fresh approach to tradition,” as Dr. White puts it, it is one that acknowledges Katrina’s devastation without succumbing to it. In this music, made by musicians who lost everything, but survived and remained home, New Orleans emerges wounded, but moving forward.