Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Jelly Roll Morton Centennial: His Complete Victor Recordings

Jelly Roll Morton was a supreme self-promoter, claiming he was the inventor of jazz at the age of 14 in 1904 and evincing a unyielding swagger about his piano playing abilities.  This three-disc set of recordings he made from 1926 to 1939, though, affirms the reality that he was one of the great musicians of any stamp of his era.

Whether it was high-flying uptempo blowers or the deeply soulful blues, Morton and his very talented bands created a body of work that may have been second only to Louis Armstrong in 1920s jazz, especially in those peak years in 1926-27 when he and his Red Hot Peppers were on a major roll (pardon the pun.)

With some of Armstrong's sidemen, like banjoist Johnny St. Cyr, trombonist Kid Ory, clarinetist Johnny Dodds and his brother, drummer Baby Dodds, Morton could hardly have anything but success.  There are a lot of lesser names in the Hot Peppers lineups, but they were all excellent musicians who made the most of their opportunity to be in a great band.  But, Morton clearly had a firm hand as leader, because these bands were highly disciplined, tight and possessed great talent.

Then, there was Morton on the piano, playing with great assurance, skill, rhythm, power and passion, but also recognizing that the greatness of his bands meant he didn't have to dominate with his playing, but could use ensemble strength to take the music to a higher level.  When he plays, though, it is a wonder.

There are, for this listener, two real treats beyond the great ensemble work.  One is the recording of two takes of "Wolverine Blues" and one of "Mr. Jelly Lord" in a trio with the Dodds brothers from June 1927.  The other is his late work, after nine years away from the recording studio, with his New Orleans Jazzmen in September 1939, just as the Second World War was beginning.  On these works, he had the amazing Sidney Bechet on soprano sax, his longtime drummer Zutty Singleton, and the fine clarinet player Albert Nicholas along with others.  Morton remained in excellent form, as well, though he was less than two years away from dying.

There are some amusing novelties with comedic spoken introductions like "Sidewalk Blues" and "Dead Man Blues," as well as classics like "Black Bottom Stomp." "Dr. Jazz," "The Chant," "Grandpa's Spells," "Original Jelly Roll Blues," the amazing, "The Pearls," and many more.  The ensemble interplay, short but choice soloing, and Morton's compositional and arranging skills are really something to behold.

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