Great composers put heavy demands on the people who play their music. No matter how long ago they wrote the tunes that continue inspire after they are gone, their presence continues to hover over the music, almost haunting the pianos that would crank out their concertos and rags. It takes work to deal with these ghosts. Perhaps this is why it took Anthony Coleman five years to complete his special tribute of the music of Jelly Roll Morton.
Coleman is perhaps best known as a pianist in the avant-garde vein, with a taste for new music and prepared piano, as well as some of the new Jewish music of the Downtown New York scene. But most anyone who has heard him live has likely heard him indulge his stride fascination with at least a tune or two of Jelly Roll's best. It is a moving experience, which shows the depth and scope of Coleman's abilities. This is not easy music for the performer, but Coleman plays it with the grace and exuberance of a master.
Some of that grace can doubtless be traced to Coleman's teacher, Jaki Byard. A virtuoso king of stride and ragtime piano in his own right, the album is dedicated to Byard, and it seems like the only thing he might have liked better than hearing such a tribute would have been to play along with it.
Even the cover design is lovely, built on an intricate, cinema design in black and white. Tzadik's wonderful graphic designer Heung-Heung "Chippy" Chin invests the package with a history of its own, so that it carries the weight of art even before the music plays. Then the piano unreels Jelly Roll's tunes, and they seem poised to give voice to a whole host of emotions that flicker behind otherwise silent actors.
There is a lot of fun, toe-tapping music here. "Buffalo Blue (Mr. Joe)" is one of many bright moments in a series of danceable tunes bobbing along in the classic barroom style. But amidst all the brightness, there is no denying the occasional notes of darkness. "Freakish" gets two, sharp treatments that starkly depict this balance. The first is more traditional and upbeat, though with subtler hints of something stirring beneath the surface. The latter explores chunky chords of dissonance and harsh key strikes with rhythms teetering on the verge of chaos. Taken as a whole it's a beautiful illustration of the musical soul, conflicted and challenging, but also bright and beyond comparison.
The special touch here is the result of the time Coleman has devoted to getting this music right. Though this is music that has been played many times before, the special tremors that make the piano quake on wobbly knees; the almost sighing pauses between the notes, and the pure feeling exerted within each chapter that makes up Jelly Roll's tunesthese touches make it special. And it is a tribute to Coleman, a distinctive composer in his own right, to hear him get so far inside this music.
Personnel: Anthony Coleman: piano.