Reviving the Sound and Feel Of Jelly Roll Morton’s Jazz

Jelly Roll Morton’s music from the 1920’s and 30’s sounded anything but antiquated at ‘‘Mr. Jelly Lord,’‘ the classical jazz concert that re-created Morton’s music for solo piano, duos, trios and a seven-piece band on Monday night at Alice Tully Hall. The New Orleans Hot Seven, led by Dr. Michael White on clarinet, brought Morton’s wry, bluesy, playful yet tautly constructed music to swaggering life: listeners could marvel anew at Morton’s innovations, but they were even more likely to be tapping their toes.

It was the kind of jazz repertory program whose careful research and transcriptions (by Wardell Quezergue) and period details made the original music shine through. When the musicians took improvisational liberties, as jazz players should, they stayed within period style. And seeing live musicians perform the music reminds modern listeners of the virtuosity and risk that went into those jaunty old records.

Morton may have been the first composer to treat recordings as something other than shortened jam sessions. His pieces had introductions, multiple themes and well-planned changes in texture and tempo; his Red Hot Peppers were his orchestra. He packed surprises into his three-minute masterpieces, but they never became merely clever, much less academic. Morton’s music still came directly from ragtime, blues and brass-band music.

The concert was a succession of delights, both from Morton’s music and the Hot Seven’s gusto. Danny Barker, a banjoist who played with Morton in the 1930’s, reminisced about Morton (including a story about a ‘‘sneak thief’‘ who stole Morton’s diamond tooth while his body lay in a funeral home) and sang with suave humor.

Dr. White captured the tones of Morton’s clarinetists Omer Simeon, Barney Bigard and Johnny Dodds with chameleonic adaptability, as he made notes laugh and wail; Fred Lonzo, on trombone, was appropriately boisterous; Teddy Riley, on cornet, was slyly understated. Walter Payton Jr., on bass or sousaphone, and Herlin Riley, on drums, made the music swagger, and Steve Pistorius, on piano, splashed through Morton’s own parts, emerging even from the wild chromatic flights of ‘‘Fingerbuster’‘ without injury.

Marcus Roberts, the pianist in Wynton Marsalis’s current group, was a little more gingerly with some of Morton’s piano solos, and Mr. Marsalis himself played terse trumpet lines, reining in any temptations to anachronism.

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And the music didn’t need modernizing to seem startling. The off-the-wall transitions of ‘‘Shreveport Stomp,’‘ the sudden key changes of ‘‘The Chant,’‘ the Ellingtonian texture of ‘‘Mournful Serenade’‘ and the bursts of stop time and double time that lent drama and humor to piece after piece all revealed a composer and arranger whose music amply deserves a place in America’s continuing repertory with musicians who can handle its remarkable demands.

by Jon Pareles
Source: The New York Times

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