Thursday, November 12, 2009

Jelly Roll Morton Lives Again Through Anthony Coleman!

Jelly Roll Morton was one of the 2oth Century's greatest composers. Jazz composers. It took Charlie Mingus's "My Jelly Roll Soul" to remind some of us, way back in the late '50s, that though he died a has-been, Mr. Jelly left us a body of work, compositions, recordings, that places him in the invisible pantheon of killer music makers.

If you have any doubts, or if scratchy old 78s keep you from appreciating what he contributed, there's a new CD that will convince you. It's a solo piano album by Anthony Coleman, called Freakish (Tzadik). What do you get? Anthony Coleman's lovingly ungarnished versions of Jelly Roll's compositions as he played them on the piano, in clear, bright, beautiful modern sound. But no, these are not transcriptions. Anthony Coleman has much to add in terms of nuance. After all, Mr. Coleman himself is an adventuresome pianist in his own right and you would not expect him just to act as a medium for Mr. Jelly's re-emergence among the living. He does not do that.

The title tune "Freakish" was one of Morton's more daring pieces, harmonically and rhythmically, and it forms a centerpiece to the whole program. Anthony gives you a "straight" rendition at the start of the CD, then returns to it towards the end to freely interpolate the piece and its implications. That's a very nice touch, since it relates the music to the present day piano improvisational scene.

In between you get some fabulous music, the ragtime, the Spanish tinge, the unexpected twists and turns in Morton's musical thinking.

This is a beauty. Whether you know Morton's music or you don't, there is much to be gained by studying Coleman's renditions. Morton is brought back to life. And it turns out that he sounds refreshingly wonderful today.

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