Dr. Michael White: Tricentennial Rag (Basin Street)

Review of the clarinetist's celebration of 300 years of New Orleans musical history

Cover of Dr. Michael White album Tricentennial Rag
Cover of Dr. Michael White album Tricentennial Rag

Wynton Marsalis may be the most prominent preserver of traditional jazz, but nobody works harder than Dr. Michael White at keeping it alive. The New Orleans clarinetist has steadfastly clung to the early-20th-century way of doing things for almost four decades, but he always infuses it with freshness. On Tricentennial Rag, he celebrates 300 years of Crescent City music with 10 of his own compositions that are firmly rooted in his favorite era (plus a new take on “When the Saints Go Marching In”). If you told a longtime jazz critic that White’s tunes had been written 100 years ago, he’d believe you.

All the subgenres are represented here: You’ve got your second-line marches, your stomps, your rags, your Latin rhythms, and your blues. The backing musicians (who vary from track to track) are right in step with White, but this is the professor’s show. It would be easy to dismiss his tunes as museum pieces if he didn’t bring so much energy and sincerity to them. It’s obvious that he deeply enjoys this stuff, from his vigorous solo over Gregory Stafford’s gruff vocals on “I Saw Jesus Standing in the Water” and the high-energy romp of “Frenchman Street Strut” to his low wail on “Sassy Creole Woman” and the gorgeous duet with guitarist Alexander R. Belhaj that opens “Loneliness.” “I’d work hard and never be too lazy,” Leon “Kid Chocolate” Brown sings on “What I Wouldn’t Do to Be With You.” It’s a love song, but it could easily be about White’s devotion to trad jazz.

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