Andrew White celebrates a long history of musical pursuit at Blues Alley

Andrew White
Blues Alley
Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The homemade flyers, softly illuminated by the faux votives on each table, say it all: “Andrew White, living legend of music historiography.” The flyers, much like their creator, are a little rough and rugged, but packed to the margins with a wealth of human and musical knowledge, acquired over a lifetime.

From playing as a member of the JFK Quintet — which was in residence at Bohemian Caverns in the early 1960s, and reportedly caught the attention of John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy — to running his own label and publishing house for over 45 years, from recording with Weather Report and McCoy Tyner to transcribing nearly every John Coltrane solo on record, Andrew Nathaniel White III is perhaps the most prolific living musician in the landscape of D.C. jazz. He also stands as one of its greatest outliers.

As CapitalBop contributor Marc Minsker wrote about White in 2011, “One would think that with all [his] accomplishments, this person would be the darling of D.C.’s music community, a poster child for jazz’s greatness in the nation’s capital. But for one reason or another, this has never happened.” Six years later this remains mostly true. But some do know — and those who packed into Blues Alley’s snug seating onil 26 got to see this oft-hidden gem of D.C. music truly shine.

Andrew White. Courtesy Nasar Abadey

Andrew White. Courtesy Nasar Abadey

Last year he rang in in the 45th anniversary of Andrew’s Music, his publishing company. This year, White gets to celebrate his own 75th birthday. He did so last week at Blues Alley; a few days later he appeared at the Jazz Gallery in New York City.

Joined by his longtime musical partner Steve Novosel on bass and veteran band mates Wade Beach on piano and Nasar Abadey on drums, White performed a mix of standards and originals that showcased his broad dexterity. From the rollicking proto-rock ‘n’ roll of Lionel Hampton’s “Red Top” to a roaring reimagining of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” White showed off his versatility and virtuosity on the saxophone.

The set began, aptly, with a historiographical gem: “Pristine,” a Coltrane composition that the tenor giant never recorded himself. White started on tenor (which proved to be problematic at first, since the piano and bass were near inaudible in the speaker mix, and his horn drowned them out) before switching to his typical alto. On his go-to instrument, he unleashed a flight of bouncy solos and songs that brimmed with delight. The switch between horns also let his band members share the spotlight. Beach in particular didn’t just play the apt accompanist: He served as an ideal contrast in his rare solos, countering White’s Coltrane-meets-Cannonball sheets of sound with delicate, Vince Guaraldi-esque bliss.

Despite the night’s festive theme, Andrew White’s birthday isn’t actually until Sep. 6. However, by happy occasion, it was Nasar Abadey’s 70th Birthday on Wednesday night. After two sets of swinging standards; robust takes on tunes by Wayne Shorter, Trane and others; and relentless interplay, neither of these elder jazz apostles was ready to quit.

When the band glided to a pleasant landing on “Bye Bye Blackbird,” the nominal end of the set, members of the audience began a chorus for more. White and Abadey just grinned at each other before launching into a brief jam. It was a moment that embodied the story of D.C. jazz that these two have helped define: a story of persistence, communal work, and joy. Really, there are few better ways to celebrate jazz in the city than by celebrating the life and work of Andrew White.

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About Jackson Sinnenberg

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Jackson is an Associate Producer for the POTUS Channel on SiriusXM . His work has appeared in the Washington City Paper, on NPR Music, NPR global culture blog Goats & Soda, in On Tap Magazine, The Rotation, and the blog of Smithsonian Folkways Records. He previously covered the city’s music scene for WGTB, Georgetown University’s radio station, where he was a show host, writer, and columnist until his graduation. He graduated from Georgetown with a bachelor’s degree in American Musical Culture.

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