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Marcus Roberts: The Music of Jelly Roll Morton

Nick Catalano By

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In the midst of Jazz at Lincoln Center's May celebration of New Orleans music, Marcus Roberts and his trio, accompanied by a choir of horns, constructed a tribute to Jelly Roll Morton. The concert featured classic Morton compositions performed with some enterprising improvisations.

Morton's importance as a jazz pioneer cannot be overstated, and the extent of his contributions is being studied properly under the microscope of Jazz at Lincoln Center. His breakthrough stride pianism, his introduction of Latin (tango, flamenco, habanera) rhythms, his incorporation of French operatic strains, Mardi Gras Indian colors and quadrille waltzes, his pioneering arranging and composing ("He's our first jazz composer," says Roberts), his polyphony, parade riffs and funeral spirituals are only part of the story. This is why the only way to explore the breadth of his creativity is to introduce vast reportorial programming which is what the J@LC producers have undertaken.

The approach Roberts and his musicians utilized was evident early on at the Rose Hall concert with the performance of "Dead Man Blues." At the outset of the original Morton recording of this tune (Sept. 21, 1926, RCA Victor) there's a funeral march with voice commentary (Jelly Roll Morton and Johnny St. Cyr). The march segues into a lively improvisational blues performed by Morton and the Red Hot Peppers. This segue reflects an old Creole religious tradition of quickly turning funereal sadness into merriment—a frequently cited cause of how jazz began. In the middle of the performance, a clarinet trio plays in notated harmony—an early indication of Morton's arranging genius. The iconic essence of this original recording was difficult to access in Roberts' group performance because the improvisational solos and the band's rhythm changes were very different. And although the announced intention of the evening was to incorporate creative improvisational addenda to the original scores, in this case of "Dead Man Blues," closer adherence to Morton's mastery would have better serviced the audience.

In the band's renditions of "The Pearls," "Freakish," and "The Chant," Morton's innovative habanera textures and stop-time convention were neatly incorporated, with drummer Jason Marsalis leading the way. Roberts' piano solo on "Freakish" offered George Gershwin-esque whole note lines which may or may not have been in Morton's mind. Alphonso Horne's trumpet growls and Ron Westrays trombone mutings aided mightily in recalling the personalities that these instruments had in the ancient New Orleans Dixieland music. Stephen Riley's silky tenor sax sub-tones were delightful, but his and fellow saxophonist Ricardo Pascal's solos occasionally propelled themselves into bebop sequences, neatly executed, but certainly not connected to the Morton literature. Joe Goldberg's clarinet highlighted the solo work and Rodney Jordan"s bass anchored the time signature changes deftly.

Were it not for the thoughtful reportorial philosophy of Jazz at Lincoln Center and the constant search for new ways to evoke the essences of past jazz luminaries such as Morton, rewarding, educational concerts such as this one might not be possible.

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