Somewhere out there, Jelly Roll Morton is smiling
by Mark Hinson
February 18, 2013
Everything old really is new again.
Jazz piano great Marcus Roberts started his tribute to New Orleans jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton on Sunday night at Seven Days of Opening Nights with introductory remarks that also served as fair warning to what was about to happen on the stage.
“When people think of Jelly Roll Morton, they think, ‘old,’ ” Roberts said as he got comfortable at his grand piano. “He is not old. We are not going to let that happen. His music is new. Especially if you have never heard it.”
During the first half of the concert, The Marcus Roberts Trio and a seven-piece horn section tore through new arrangements of Morton tunes such as “Doctor Jazz” and “The Pearls” with an enthusiastic precision that was, at times, jaw-dropping.
The highlight of the first half was “New Orleans Bump,” which featured a new arrangement by Roberts’ trumpet player Alphonso Horne (yes, horn is in his last name). The song may have been written in the Roaring Twenties but it sounded fresh and new as Horne pumped it full of strutting swagger. The arrangement also left plenty of room for Roberts to take off on a wild improvisation that was so full of charging rhythms and counter-rhythms that it could cause dizziness.
Remember the name Horne, who studied jazz at Florida State College of Music with Roberts as one of his professors. Horne has a big future in front of him.
The crowd of 710 in Ruby Diamond Concert Hall let out whoops and “wows” throughout the evening, whether it was for trills on the clarinet or a mind-bending improv from Roberts that sounded like boogie-woogie from another planet. Anyone expecting a stodgy museum piece or dry recreation of a Dixieland band was sadly mistaken.
The band lineup included Jason Marsalis on drums, Rodney Jordan on bass, Tim Blackman Jr. on trumpet, Jeremiah St. John on trombone, Joe Goldberg on clarinet, Tissa Khosla on baritone, Ricardo Pascal on saxophone and Stephen Riley on tenor saxophone. The concert had been billed as an octet but, hey, who cares if you add a few more players when they are this good?
Morton, who got his start playing in the brothels in his hometown of New Orleans, was a flamboyant figure who claimed he invented jazz. That may or may not be true, but he certainly was the first musician to sit down and notate the rambunctious new music of the 20th century. He also rubbed a lot of the other musicians the wrong way with his bragging and his flash (he had a diamond tooth), so that is probably why he was not well remembered when he died in near-poverty in the early ’40s.
While the party-hearty Morton may not have made it to the Pearly Gates after his death, he was definitely smiling his diamond-tooth smile somewhere in the great beyond on Sunday night.
Roberts, who turns 50 this year, is no stranger to the Seven Days. He and his group put on a memorable show with jazz singer Dianne Reeves a few years ago. Anyone who saw his reinvention of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” at Seven Days probably wondered how he could top that performance.
He just did.
The Seven Days of Opening Nights continues today with a screening of a film that was hand-picked by Tribeca Film Festival honcho Geoffrey Gilmore. The title is being withheld until showtime at 8 p.m. It is sold out.