The surprises on Adventures in New Orleans Jazz, Vol. 1 begin with the very first notes, a repeating figure on the balafon—the ancient West African ancestor of the xylophone—echoed in succession by plucked banjo strings, a plucked string bass, and the rhythmic texture of a shekere, the African percussive instrument made from a gourd and covered in tightly-knit, beaded webbing. White’s sinuous clarinet line, when it finally appears, has a slight Middle Eastern reediness to it, calling to mind movie scenes of a busy marketplace in North Africa. The tune, “West African Strut,” slowly evolves from the dusty streets of the marketplace into a kind of novelty tune filled with burlesque gaiety and meant to be played in a turn of the 20th-Century American vaudeville house.
The same lesson continues through a series of long ensemble improvisations based on medleys of South African, Jamaican, and Haitian ancestry, respectively. First, Miriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata” blended with the lovely melody refrain of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” then Bob Marley (“One Love”) matched with Curtis Mayfield (“People Get Ready”), and finally a somewhat somber celebration as a “Rara Second Line” slowly segues into an historic and joyously melancholy Haitian Creole composition, “Haiti, Cherie.” In between, Dr. Michael White creates a series of cameo settings in the old-time tradition for pianist and vocalist Cynthia Girtley (“Careless Love”), trumpeter and vocalist Greg Stafford (“Basin St. Blues”), and guitarist and ace banjo player Detroit Brooks (a stunning duet version of “House of the Rising Sun”).
The final three tracks of the album—“His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” and Paul Simon’s “Take Me to the Mardi Gras”—open into a broad soundscape that provides the setting for White’s clarinet solos, carefully built and gorgeously rendered flights of fancy that stand out as much for their impressive range of tonality as for their context. White dedicates Adventures in New Orleans Jazz, Vol. 1 “to the memory of my mother and best friend, Mrs. Helen Forcia White (1922-2009),” and its hard not to hear the final “movement” of this world-music-meets-traditional-New-Orleans-jazz CD as an extended elegy, no matter how bright it may sound at times, that simply had to be played. “Motherless Child,” played entirely solo, is a sweet and profound celebration of loss without a hint of sentimentality or self-indulgence; like the album as a whole, it’s masterful in its craft and maturity, a stunning display of restraint, discipline, craft, and pure emotion.