Jelly Roll Morton - "The Complete Library of Congress Recordings" - Rounder - 1938
On a recent episode of HBO’s “Treme,” the character Delmond Lambreaux, played by Rob Brown, laments the stigma that “old jazz” gets. The trumpet player throws on a Jelly Roll Morton record for one of his girls, who immediately rolls her eyes, dismissing the music as stuffy and archaic.
“I just can’t see anybody listening to this. Not this century,” says Jill, one of Delmond’s many girlfriends, of Morton. “He sounds prehistoric to me. I’m sorry Del, I’m not hearing it. Listening to this I just see brothers toting barges and lifting bales.”
But Delmond counters – albeit on deaf ears – with a crucial point that is proving to be the theme behind his story arc this season: that while Jelly Roll’s music may now sound dated and its aluminum-etched recording fuzzy, there was a time when this sound “was popular music,” essentially all that anyone listened to, and for Delmond to advance as an artist he needs to understand and channel that history and energy, not dismiss and ignore it like he had in the first season. Only then can he evolve past being an imitator and become an innovator.
That lesson is one that many New Orleans musicians have taken time to learn, and Jelly Roll Morton on "The Complete Library of Congress Recordings" is a brilliant teacher of it. On the 1938 set, recorded with biographer Alan Lomax two and a half years before Morton's death, he not only shows why he was one of the earliest jazz icons with his dazzling piano skills, but in interviews Morton also gives insight into the mechanics of music -- rhythm, melody, harmony, pacing, tone -- and how those elements coalesce into what we know as jazz. His candor is refreshing and entertaining, with thoughts on good food and drink and bawdy stories of his time playing in the brothels of Storyville.
The quality of these recordings, which were restored with painstaking detail, is fantastic despite having to work with music that was cut on aluminum. The effort won the producers of the album two Grammys, including Best Historical Album.
And hey, when we're talking "stranded on a desert island" albums, an eight disc set with over nine hours of material would come in handy indeed.