Features and Reviews
CD Review: Jelly Roll Morton, The Piano Rolls
Realized by Artis Wodehouse
By Gary Rametta
Since it first hit record stores in 1997, this is one CD that always finds its way into my car or computer CD drive. One simple reason: I can't get enough of it.
These rolls are from 1924-26, around the same time as Morton's historic live solos on the Gennett label, and immediately preceding the pioneering sides he recorded on Victor and Bluebird with his band, the Red Hot Peppers.
On this CD, music professor, concert pianist and piano historian Artis Wodehouse employs modern technology to inject new life into the piano artistry of one Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton. The twelve solos include some of his greatest compositions, like "Original Jelly Roll Blues," "Shreveport Stomp," "Stratford Hunch," "Grandpa's Spells," "King Porter Stomp," "Mr. Jelly Lord" and others. Morton was a constant improviser, and his playing on these roll arrangements is incredible.
Ms. Wodehouse obtained these rolls from various Morton collections and, after converting them to computer MIDI files, began the labor-intensive task of making them sound less mathematical and machine-like, and more human instead. She accomplished this by analyzing Morton's analog recordings on Gennett, in an effort to gain a deeper understanding of his phrasing, touch, dynamics, rhythm, pedaling and even mistakes. Then, through the use of computer sequencing software, she was able to reshape the attributes of every single note on the rolls. The resulting files were then played through a nine-foot Yamaha Disklavier grand piano in New York City.
The energy and flavor of the tunes on this CD are truly mesmerizing. For one, the rendition of "Shreveport Stomp" is amazing, a masterpiece of composition, improvisation, and of Wodehouse's abilities of reconstruction. "Grandpa's Spells" features brilliant improvisation not heard on any analog recording. Other numbers, like "Tin Roof Blues," "Mr. Jelly Lord" and "Tom Cat Blues," are equally terrific.
As Ms. Wodehouse notes in her comments, some of the choices she made were subjective. This has prompted some to concede her project as more Wodehouse than Morton, and thus lacking authenticity. I don't see it that way. A better description might be: This is Artis' Wodehouse's Jelly Roll Morton. And a fine Jelly Roll Morton it is. If nothing else, it should prompt pianists and music appreciators to seek out additional Morton material, whether it be LP records, analog CDs, sheet music, biographies; whatever. As a Morton admirer myself, I find it an indispensable part of my music collection. Oh, almost forgot: the highly informative and well-written liner notes by Mr. Stanley Crouch make it even more worthwhile.