Andrew White is enormous. Not in stature — he’s tall and slender — but in expressiveness. For example, his wardrobe at Blues Alley on Wednesday night comprised a salmon-colored jacket, red pants, a splashy red-and-yellow shirt and a white tie, with two gold medals hanging around his neck along with his saxophone. And his music was even louder and more intense than his fashion.
D.C.’s White performs at Blues Alley every April (i.e., Jazz Appreciation Month), although this year carries extra weight: the multi-instrumentalist turns 75 this summer. Age has done nothing to dim his persona. Even his introduction was ostentatious: “My name is Andrew Nathaniel White III,” he boomed, “and I am the most voluminously productive self-industrialized musician in history!” (It’s probably true: White boasts a catalogue of 2,900 self-produced documents.) It matched his playing on alto and tenor saxophones, both with the same signatures: huge, bellowing tone that drifted freely in and out of tune; embrace of coarseness and sometimes overblowing; and widely-spaced vibrato that sounds like no one else.
Yes, it was noisy. White and drummer Nasar Abadey were so loud that they often obscured veteran Washington pianist Wade Beach and bassist Steve Novosel: It was several minutes before one could tell that “Superfly Blues” was indeed a twelve-bar blues. There was more room for the rhythm section and even a rippling piano solo on the ballad “Theme for Ernie.” The slow song also gave White a chance to show how versatile his power playing could be: on his own solo, he somehow injected pathos into the tune without showing the merest glimpse of subtlety. (Ironically, White would later betray subtlety with the alto sax-piano duet “Anna Mae’s Chicken,” a tune which itself was not subtle.)
Most of the time White made this work, perhaps through the (obviously immense) force of his will. The zeal of his takes on “From Shanghai to Bangkok” and “Girl of the Night” crossed over into humor — intentionally so, with the saxophonist swaying his hips to the burlesque rhythms, and “Afro Blue” recalled the modal maelstroms of White’s hero, John Coltrane, who made the best known recording of the song. Not quite as successful was “Say! When Are You Coming Back?” on which White’s volume simply clashed with the softness of the band (including brushes from the otherwise-thunderous Abadey).
Power and passion, in short, were White’s modus operandi. He transformed them into musicality, and had a great time doing it — as he let the audience know at the close of the first set. “We’ve got another set, totally different music,” he announced. “We’re gonna have a ball.”