Eventually dying insensate and alone, Jelly Roll Morton was bombastic, egocentric, somewhat free with the truth, an unashamed self-promoter -- and nonetheless a true giant of jazz as both a performer and composer. To honor this jazz pioneer, the Connecticut-based Jazz Crusade label has brought together a band of top-flight contemporary traditional jazz players for a Morton tribute session. Mainly Morton includes not only Morton compositions, but also songs he didn't write but liked to play, as well as songs he neither wrote nor performed but liked to talk about anyway. The leader of this fine group is trombonist Geoff Cole, who has been part of England's jazz scene since the 1950s. Steeped in the musical parlance of traditional jazz, Cole and his cohorts offer more than 71 minutes of music by Morton and others. Through the wizardry of modern dubbing techniques, the Jelly Roll man sings and whistles on some cuts like his "Sidewalk Blues" and an enthusiastic, humorous "Dirty, Dirty, Dirty." In addition to capturing the excitement and discipline of a typical Morton-led small jazz group, Cole's interpretations highlight the fact that the man was a forerunner in bringing jazz music to a higher level of sophistication than the genre had heretofore experienced. Listen, for example, to the complex (for that time) structure of "My Home Is in a Southern Town," with its interplay of trumpet, trombone, clarinet, piano, and rhythm section.
The players take full advantage of the many opportunities that Morton's brand of small group provided for soloing. Tony Pyke's clarinet is special on "Someday Sweetheart." Pat Hawes is alone on piano on "Don't You Leave Me Here." Alan Elsdon plays the hot trumpet the music demands, but he shows that he also has a soft side with his muted solo on "Sweet Substitute." As leader, Cole exercises his prerogative to take several solos, all of them interesting and tasteful (as on "Beale Street Blues"). Eric Webster on guitar, and especially banjo, is essential in recreating the sound of Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers. This is an entertaining session of excellent playing by outstanding practitioners of the art of jazz. The album is enriched by the authoritative liner notes by Big Bill Bissonnette, himself a distinguished performer of this music.