When traditional jazz revivalist Dr. Michael White was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Heritage Fellowship in 2008, he told NEA interviewer Mary Eckstein, "I think that I'm on the cusp of a new style, or new approach, or another major wave of how traditional New Orleans jazz will be played." If his latest album, Adventures in New Orleans Jazz, Vol. 1, (due out June 21 on Basin Street Records) is any indication, he may be on to something.
The new recording builds on his two previous releases, Dancing in the Sky and Blue Crescent, and expands to incorporate songs by Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield and Miriam Makeba and "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." Organized as a series of extended medleys and new compositions interspersed with a few cameo appearances, Adventures is dedicated "to the memory of my mother and best friend, Mrs. Helen Forcia White (1922-2009)" and closes with a beautifully rendered solo version of "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," followed by a street-parade celebration of Paul Simon's "Take Me to the Mardi Gras," done in the traditional New Orleans jazz ensemble style.
"This was an important CD for me to do," White says. "When I was coming up, the older musicians used to say they could play any kind of music as New Orleans jazz, that New Orleans jazz was more of an approach to music than it was a specific genre of music. In the past couple of years, I've been exploring a much wider range of music, partly to test that theory, and so I've been growing a lot, and feeling like now I can connect a lot of musical dots I used to think about but could never quite reach.
"But now it's really fun to connect those dots. So, I wanted to bring my own experiences from the past couple of years into the studio, into the music, to show what those older musicians — who were the very first generation jazz musicians — were trying to say."
White currently occupies the Keller Endowed Chair for the Humanities at Xavier University, but he's been very busy in the studio, having recently recorded with Eric Clapton, Marianne Faithful, Paul Simon and Taj Mahal. Along with Jason Marsalis and Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes, White joined West Africa percussionist Seguenon Kone's Ensemble Fatien two years ago. The experimental ensemble released an album in June 2010 on Threadhead Records. That month, White also made his first appearance at New York City's Vision Festival, a 10-day celebration of free jazz, where he joined with free-jazz stalwart and fellow clarinetist Perry Robinson in the North-South Clarinet Ensemble.
So what's a trad guy like him doing in such avant-garde surroundings? "I was a little shocked and surprised myself," he admits. "But I sat in with Perry during a couple of sets and I began to feel comfortable in that context, I really heard and felt the connection between the New Orleans tradition and free jazz. Experiences like that gave me some of the confidence I needed to really develop a vision for New Orleans jazz as world music, and then trust the experiment enough to make it work."
When does he expect to release Adventures in New Orleans Jazz, Vol. 2? Next year, after he's had a chance to do a little more exploring.