Near the end of his life, Jelly Roll Morton was bitter and in financial straits, feeling overlooked for his contributions as a jazz trailblazer while others got the credit. In 1938, folklorist Alan Lomax began documenting Morton's career and music by conducting private sessions with the pianist in a concert hall, transcribing his comments and performances onto two primitive battery-operated portable disc cutters, which had problems keeping a consistent speed.
Various editions of these historic Library of Congress recordings have been issued over the years, though duplications, omissions and pitch problems make them inferior to this newly remastered and re-edited collection. The recordings have been resequenced to their original order, with duplications omitted and all unreleased segments included, while the pitch correction and remastering, utilizing a few newly discovered alternate masters, has greatly improved the fidelity.
Though he has long had the reputation as a braggart, Morton comes across as one who is trying to tell the story about the big picture, not just his own life. He discusses numerous musicians and characters that he encountered along his travels, nearly all of whom would have been forgotten without these recordings. His narratives are intermingled with his piano instrumentals and baritone vocals, lubricated by his interviewer's liquor (who he thanks frequently with the comment "This whiskey is tremendous ), though some material was irretrievably lost as Lomax changed discs.
Morton's repertoire is wide-ranging, including spirituals, folk songs, opera excerpts and even Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag and Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin,' though he quickly detours from Andy Razaf's lyrics, possibly not remembering them. He renders still effective renditions of many of his best-known instrumentals (including "King Porter Stomp, "The Pearls and "The Crave ). All of the songs initially omitted from earlier editions are present, including Morton's very bawdy take on "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor and his own "Winin' Boy Blues. Morton explains that making a pallet was not only done to let a guest sleep in the host's bed, but also in order to avoid leaving overt signs of committing adultery to one's spouse.
The bonuses are many: a detailed, large size booklet with notes by John Szwed, Lomax's biography Mr. Jelly Roll, plus actual complete transcriptions of Lomax's interviews (including some not recorded) with Morton on a CD-ROM program added to final disc. The audio tracks on the last disc contain enlightening interviews with Johnny St. Cyr, Alphonse Picou, Leonard Bechet, and Paul Dominguez, Jr. The large box is shaped like a piano, though its outer edges could have been made a bit sturdier.
Anyone collector interested in early jazz should check out this painstakingly assembled collection of Jelly Roll Morton's landmark Library of Congress sessions without hesitation. As far as I'm concerned, this is easily the best boxed set of the year.
CD1: The Story of
Jelly Roll Morton: piano, vocals, guitar, commentary; Alan Lomax: interviewer; Johnny St.
Cyr: guitar, commentary, Leonard Bechet: commentary; Paul Dominguez, Jr.: guitar,
commentary; Albert Glenny: commentary; Alphonse Picou: commentary.
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