Dr. Michael White

Blue Crescent (Basin Street Records)
Henry Butler,

PiaNOLA Live(Basin Street Records)

By Martin Kasdan Jr.

Fans of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival have come to expect a slew of CD releases timed to coincide with artists' performances at Jazzfest and in the Crescent City's clubs and concert venues. This year was no exception. This month will focus on releases by New Orleans-based musicians on independent labels. Basin Street Records is a homegrown N'awlins company celebrating its tenth anniversary with three new full-length releases: Irvin Mayfield and Ellis Marsalis, Love Songs, Ballads and Standards; Henry Butler, PiaNOLA Live; and Dr. Michael White, Blue Crescent. Label founder and President Mark Samuels has been an outspoken advocate on behalf of New Orleans and its musicians, aptly demonstrated by the label's new motto, "Rebuilt and Ready to Roll." Ellis Marsalis, pianist, educator and patriarch, has released An Open Letter to Thelonious on his ELM label, which will be reviewed separately along with his collaboration with Mayfield.

Dr. Michael White played a series of special engagements here in Louisville in September 2005, to raise awareness of the issues facing New Orleans musicians and citizens. His new release, Blue Crescent, continues in the vein of his 2004 release, Blue Crescent, the somewhat "Saint James Infirmary-ish" "Dark Sunshine" and the traditional "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." The crowd was second-lining and cheering, as you will be if you have a feel for the deep tradition of New Orleans jazz and purchase this CD.

The pianist and vocalist Henry Butler presents the most diverse album of these releases. When he first started recording, he was touted as a jazz pianist; indeed, he is, but is also a rollicking R 'n' B player, a blues artist . . . in short, he is an artist not to be pigeonholed. PiaNOLA Live is not just a live recording, but a series of recordings from the past quarter century, from many different venues. As if to ground the CD, the opening cut is "Basin Street Blues," followed by an original, "Orleans Inspiration," which seems to channel Professor Longhair (whose "Tipitina" appears later). Butler draws from both New Orleans' unique R 'n' B stylings in songs such as "Mother-In-Law," and the broader soul palette on "Dock of the Bay" and "Will It Go Round in Circles." A beautiful rendition of "Old Man River" brings the album closer to its jazz beginnings, and the closing number closes the gap from the early jazz of the opening number to the contemporary New Orleans feel of Alvin Batiste's "North American Idiosyncrasies." Butler somehow manages to present a consistent musical thread throughout the divergent styles represented here. The liner notes by the album's co-producer, George Winston, provide a great deal of technical detail which would be especially appreciated by other pianists.

If you can't find these releases locally, you can locate them at the label's website, www.BasinStreetRecords.com. At this writing, there is a limited special of a Festival Sampler CD with the purchase of two discs from the online catalog.