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Much fun as Yamomanem was, what would a jazz festival with a “Celebrating New Orleans” theme be without a real-deal traditional New Orleans jazz band? Fortunately, Dr. Michael White was at the French Embassy Wednesday night to keep anyone from having to answer that question.
White is a professor of New Orleans music and culture (and, apparently, Spanish) at New Orleans’ Xavier University, but being a scholar of the music goes hand-in-hand with understanding that there’s no place in it for scholarly sterility. So White, in his other guise as a clarinet player, formed his 7-piece Original Liberty Jazz Band to play the music with that sense of authenticity that necessarily includes fun, spirit, and the culture of African-American New Orleans. That’s how we got songs with titles like “Shake It and Break It” and “Boogaloosa Strut” (the band’s first two songs) in the first place, and how the OLJB could craft originals like “Come Together Sunday Morning.”
And, of course, it comes with the great sound of New Orleans polyphony, with White, trombonist Lucien Barbarin, and trumpeter George Stafford—-who also sings with an unpolished but smooth and pleasant voice. Each player also turned in folksy solos, by and large embellishments of the written themes; that’s far from a bad thing, as White’s stunning reworking of “Summertime” proved. For all its raucousness, though, it was curious to note how subtle the rhythm section was: the bass is supposed to be rarely noticed, and Kerry Lewis was indeed subliminal…but so was drummer Herman Lebeaux, who stuck mainly with a rolling “big-four” accent once every measure. He and Lewis each took one short solo, but for the most part stayed out of the way and let pianist Steven Pistorius and banjo player Detroit Brooks take the rhythm spotlight. Mostly Pistorius, who took dancing melodic solos while Brooks largely stuck to strumming chords in his.
Nonetheless, the polyphonic level took a huge boost near the end of “Come Together Sunday Morning” when a clarinet suddenly sounded from the back of the embassy’s auditorium, and shuffling up the aisles came clarinet legend/DEJF artistic director Paquito d’Rivera. He joined the band on Ellington‘s “Black and Tan Fantasy” and the original “Gypsy Second Line,” dueling with White on their axes at the close of the latter. It was a thrilling reminder of how two clarinetists can sound like two different instruments: White played low and riffy, in staccato rhythms, while d’Rivera favored high glissandi and emotional cries.
It was at that point that I realized that there were no music stands on the stage. Just like the real traditional stuff, White and the OLJB played entirely from memory, by ear, and using their imaginations. Even the most celebrated modern jazz improvisers often use chord charts to give structure to their solos, and these guys didn’t need them. That’s a mean feat—-and a reason in and of itself why early jazz remains a tradition worth continuing, and why New Orleans remains so vital to American culture.