The Piano Music of Jelly Roll Morton

Liner notes

Introduction by Richard Trythall

Notes by Marcello Piras

    The "Knoxville Musical History Mural" which is reproduced on the cover of this CD and in which I have the honor to be included (seated at the electronic piano), depicts more than a century of musical life in Knoxville. The images well render that this was a vibrant and colorful life within a community which took music making of all kinds seriously. For my part, as a budding young classical pianist-composer "born and raised" in Knoxville, I performed frequently as piano soloist with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra (conducted by my mentor and friend, David Van Vactor), while on weekends I played boogie woogie and pop standards in local night clubs and on Sunday mornings occasionally helped out in church as a "gospel" pianist. In fact, as the mural amply illustrates, Knoxville provided a large number of vital musical influences and stimuli - ranging from country music and bluegrass through gospel music, rock 'n' roll and classical music. If the truth be told, I suppose, even after spending the past 38 years in Europe as a composer-pianist associated primarily with "avant-garde" contemporary music, I am still in the process of assimilating and re-examining the significance of all of the musical experiences I first encountered in Knoxville. It is most likely for this reason that I have a particular admiration for the music of composers who have created original styles by synthesizing a variety of musical languages - composers such as Charles Ives - who was the first great American avant-garde composer and whose "Concord" Sonata I released on CD in 1996 - and Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton - whose unique music laid the cornerstone for jazz and to whose work the present CD is dedicated
     As a New Orleans Creole, notably proud of his French heritage, Morton was open to the classical music which he heard at the French Opera in town, just as he was open to the wide variety of other music which abounded in this wealthy port town. This open minded approach, and his remarkable musicality and pianistic ability, permitted him to synthesize his ragtime piano roots with the "Spanish tinge" music of New Orleans, the improvisational blues tradition and the polyphonic, "Dixieland", band style of the day, to create a composite music which is as fresh, varied and provocative today as it was almost a century ago.
     The piano works contained on this CD were transcribed from recordings of Jelly Roll Morton's solo piano performances. Six of these were made in 1924, nine were made in 1938 (all but one of these during his recording sessions at Washington's Smithsonian Institute with Alan Lomax), and two in 1939. Although previous transcriptions of these works do exist, the performances recorded on this CD are based upon entirely new transcriptions which I prepared during the two years preceding this recording.
     My thanks and appreciation for their help in the realization of this recording project go to the jazz musicologist, Marcello Piras, for his invaluable advice and counsel, to Maestro Flavio Colusso for his support and patience, to Terrin Kanoa, Program Coordinator of "Keep Knoxville Beautiful", for her gracious assistance and to Marisa Patulli for adding the unexpected.                                                                                                            Richard Trythall

     Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1940) was born more than a century ago yet few people realize that he was one of the 20th century's great composers. His fame today is restricted to jazz fans, most of whom - particularly the newcomers - never listen to him. As for the classical music audience, they are unaware even of his name.
     The reasons for this bitter destiny can be found in the nature of Morton's music. On one hand, it belongs totally to jazz. Morton himself actually claimed to be the "inventor" of jazz - an assertion which did not win him a good press at the time. Yet, over the years, it has been recognized that this claim, though exaggerated, was not totally unfounded. Certainly he did not accomplish by himself, in a flash of genius, a historical process which was the result of a long and collective effort. But in the long and collective history of physics there is Newton's apple too. So, perhaps, Morton is the Newton of jazz - the one who first delivered, with powerful clarity, a convincing definition of this new language.
     There is, however, yet another side to Morton's music. As a mixed-blood descendant of French speaking whites and African slaves growing up in the New Orleans of the end of the 19th century, Morton was nurtured in the cult of classical music, in particularly by that sort of genteel parlor music ("Album Leaf" music) which one customarily found laying on the piano's music rack during that period. From this European background he drew the flawless formal balance of his compositions, his sense for dramatic contrast, his love of counterpoint and even his hope, which he candidly confessed one day, to leave some music which was worthy of such models.
     Unfortunately Morton was a mulatto in everything, including music. His work is foreign to the heritage which descends from Mozart through Beethoven to Chopin, Brahms, Wagner, Debussy and Stravinsky. As a consequence the classical world has ignored it without remorse. His classical sense of form does not govern lieder or fugues, chorales or sonatas. Instead it gives shape to soulful blues tunes, joyful military marches, swirling Cuban dances and mischievous onomatopoeic effects such as animal sounds and ship sirens.
     Moreover, his music is partly improvised - too little for present day jazz buffs (who often dismiss it as dusty nostalgia), yet too much for the classical music lover for whom a music not entirely written out can't be "serious". (An opinion neither Beethoven, Bach nor Mozart would not have subscribed to.) As a consequence, Morton is still relegated to a kind of limbo, awaiting the moment when his piano and small ensemble masterpieces will earn the universal acclaim they deserve.
There is a problem in fact - if a composer is that great, his music should be played. This is not all that easy in Morton's case. To begin with, reliable printed editions of his music do not exist. He wrote out his pieces (for his publishers as well as for the copyright office) in a simplified form. This was for two reasons. First, he reserved the right to enrich the harmony, bass line, texture and rhythmic scheme through improvisation. Secondly, he did not want others to grasp the secret of his music - that unique mixture of a taut rhythmic pulse with an urge to sing out; of the assertive, macho energy of a frontiersman with the sensuous restraint of the seducer; of the memories of old Caribbean colonial perfumes with a merciless Yankee thrust towards the future. No such world emerges from playing the printed sheet music with its simplified, un-daring harmonies. And the publisher agreed. Morton's music, as performed by Morton, was extremely difficult. Who would have bought it?
     A few years ago an American scholar completed a formidable task. He transcribed, note by note, all of Morton's piano works from Morton's recordings. It was through this edition that Richard Trythall first discovered the fascination and the challenge of Morton's masterworks. As a pianist who has been widely acclaimed for his interpretation of Charles Ives' music, Trythall could not remain indifferent to an author who was at once both Ives' complement and opposite. Like Ives, Morton pursued an ideal synthesis of the diverse traditions of American music. Yet Morton lived within the discriminated sector of American society, saw the problem from a completely different perspective and, therefore, found his own solution in the opposite way - not apocalyptic and esoteric as Ives had done, but rather joyful and "popular" without, however, being either elementary or banal.
     In 1999 I encouraged Trythall to confront Morton's work in depth by proposing a recital dedicated only to Morton's music. The idea entailed many problems beyond even the sheer physical endurance demanded (performing Morton's work requires the energy of a voodoo dancer). I had, in fact, discovered that one transcription was in the wrong key. (In the 78 rpm record era, discs were often recorded at speeds ranging from 70 to 87 rpm or more. Consequently, they may sound in the wrong keys even on LP and CD reprints.) Likewise, working with his usual care for detail, Trythall had become aware of unnatural pianistic passages, inaccurate chord voicings and more. He made a thorough comparison of one of the transcriptions with the original source recording and found that circa 30 percent of the transcription was inaccurate. When these inaccuracies were corrected, the hand movements became less awkward and the music more natural.
     Trythall likes challenges and chose to re-transcribe all of the pieces in their entirety. The astonishing results can be heard here for the first time.
     Morton was not particularly fortunate. Granted, his printed editions were incomplete because he chose them to be, but he also lived in a period when recording techniques were severely limited. With this CD we can hear these pieces in Hi-Fi and with all the correct notes for the first time. Of course, Trythall does not improvise, the ad-libs which embellish Morton's music are here played note for note. As a result, Morton's music sounds as close to the original intention as is possible today. And then, who knows? Perhaps other pianists will discover the many subtle beauties hidden within the thousand folds of Morton's music and will put it in their repertoire. It's high time: good old Jelly Roll deserves it.                                                                                                                                         Marcello Piras

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