No music manages more crushing misery or greater joy--Dixieland expresses emotional extremes. Though its corny syncopations are decidedly out-of-fashion beyond the borders of New Orleans, some fine players remain true to the faith. Clarinetist Dr. Michael White for example. On this release he joins The Happy Pals at Grossman's Tavern in Toronto and makes a live recording worth a listen.
The Pals have been having fun at the Tavern for over 35 years, and Cliff "Kid" Bastien was their trumpet player until his death in 2003. Each year since, the band has hosted a tribute to him and his idol, the late Kid Thomas Valentine. "Je Vous Aimie" is the raucous kick-start to 2009's tribute. Solos abound. Patrick Tevlin, who succeeded Bastien, continues the tradition in a style that still owes much to King Oliver. Toby Hughes too is a throwback to the 20s. His watery yet masculine vibrato recalls the earliest jazz saxophone-players.
But it's White who stands out. From the first track he demonstrates why he is one of the most sought after of today's Dixieland musicians. Without him, 100 years ago The Happy Pals could have rocked the Crescent City's houses of questionable commerce; with him, eyebrows would have popped up to hairlines. Though true to his heritage, he expands it by taking greater harmonic and rhythmic risks that give his recordings a more modern feel. He'd never be mistaken for Barney Bigard or Woody Allen.
Many familiar tunes pepper the album's mix "I'll Never Smile Again," "Dinah," "My Happiness," and "Everybody Loves Saturday Night" are among them. The vocals (half the tracks) work fine for the partying, feeling-no-pain Tavern crowd, but not so well for repeated listens at home. Too bad John Boutté couldn't have joined Dr. White in his travels. (Boutté, is the singer on the title track for HBO's Treme series which is set in post-Katrina New Orleans.)
The celebration takes special care with "Moonlight Bay," the title tune added at White's request because it reminds him of Kid Thomas. John Tevnis reinforces the association by imitating the wah-wah mute sound Thomas used on the piece. Though nostalgia reigns supreme, "Last Train to San Fernando," the tune furthest from the birth of jazz, has an infectious shuffle-beat that makes it one of the best numbers on the album.
Despite forgettable vocals, this release has some of the most entertaining traditional jazz you're likely to hear this year. White's addition is a huge plus; his extended solo on "China Boy" a particular delight. If you can't get to New Orleans, Toronto's Grossman's Tavern is the place to be.