Jelly Roll Morton

The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax

Hearing jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton give Scott Joplin's classic "Maple Leaf Rag" a swinging makeover is just one of the many pleasures found in this historic box set of interviews and solo performances recorded in 1938 by folklorist Alan Lomax. With eight sprawling CDs, an LP-size booklet of liner notes and photos, and a UC Press reprint of Lomax's 300-page biography Mister Jelly Roll, this collection provides a vivid portrait of the genre's origins in New Orleans at the turn of the century, its development across the United States in subsequent decades, and Morton's personal memories of the rough-and-ready dance halls and brothels where the music grew up. Orated with a preacherly cadence, the pianist's fundamentalist views on jazz may seem myopic by today's standards, but his insights (and musical examples) on melody, harmony, tempo, riffs, and the "Spanish tinge" that gave the art form its original character are still valuable lessons. Since the majority of the 120-plus tracks are spoken, one could argue that there's too much talking and not enough playing here. But Morton's oral history is often engaging, and when he does get around to demonstrating the deep Delta blues and upbeat early-jazz styles of his discourse, the songs are rarely less than astonishing.

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