It’s a blast to hear Anthony Coleman romp through Jellyroll Morton. A few years ago, just after the 53-year-old pianist with the modernist tendencies began essaying the New Orleans master, I chatted with him about the music’s impact on contemporary ears and the character of the iconic composer himself. Below are some snippets. Coleman takes to the 88s at Barbes on Sunday night, part of the Carefusion Jazz Fest.
WHEN DID YOU FIRST TURN TO THIS MATERIAL?
Several years ago, in Brussels, [where someone was curating a program of] new people playing old stuff. They asked me to do Morton and James P. Johnson. I realized that if I played parties or benefits, it would be interesting [to know these pieces] – different than what people would expect I’d play. But after doing a whole evening of it, I thought, “This sucks, if I’m going to do this, I need to do it properly, really well.”
BUT YOU ALREADY HAD A GRIP ON THE EARLIER MASTERS FROM GROWING UP?
When I was young, I was very canonical. I explored the whole pianist/composer thing thoroughly before I was 18. Knowing some of this other stuff drew me to Jaki Byard, and I began to study with him.
DESCRIBE THE ESSENCE OF MORTON’S WORK.
He let’s syncopation tell the story. He doesn’t do that much about “getting hot.” He cares about dynamics a lot, but he’s very involved with understanding the rhythmic elements that do or don’t make something swing. And he calibrates the syncopation; they go in a certain line – it’s something very consistent in his music. Check “Hyena Stomp” on Library of Congress. Each time he goes around, he stresses more of the elements that make jazz jazz. Check “Froggie Moore.” You can see he’s a serious theorist. Ellington did lots of things with color, gesture, and register. Morton has no extravagance, in a way. When you think about what people listen to for pleasure, I haven’t known too many people who are into Morton. And its because he lacks color and extravagance. He’s kind of austere. When he uses humor, he’s so NOT funny. There’s a quality of joy in Armstrong, Ellington, Waller. There, the joy is palpable. When Morton tries that, it comes out with the false gaiety of a carnival or sickly, like a failed vaudeville routine.
WHAT ATTRACTS YOU MORE, THE RHYTHM OR THE MELODY?
I’m getting off on all the elements, it’s a whole geschalt. They move so logically, and they’re swinging. But they’re also conservative. When the right hand is going and the left hand is going, it feels like a whole marching band in one piano. But the mechanics are only one of many elements that draw me to him. One of the statements about jazz that influenced me the most was when Albert Ayler said that he jumped from Sidney Bechet to free jazz – that bebop was not interesting to him. He made that connection between the ‘20s and free jazz, which is a connection that’s always meant a lot to me.
WHAT KIND OF REACTION DO YOU GET FROM AUDIENCES?
People love it. I don’t think about which part of Morton is emotional and which is intellectual, but I do know the audience loves it. They go nuts for it, in fact. But Morton is tough. If you get him you get him. If you don’t you don’t. I love it all. The WORST Morton record I love. If you’re playing very modern or post-modern thing, and then you play something from the 20s, it’s almost a no brainer that the audience is going to go wild. “Hey, he plays that old shit, man, fantastic!” You don’t even have to play it well. My problem is that I hate revival jazz. I come to Morton out of loving him for 35 years and wanting to do him justice. And by the end of it, it’s going to take me…I don’t know where. It’s already taken me to piano lessons again – first time since I was a kid. Wow. I just want to be able to inhabit the music more objectively, like a classical interpreter does.
Here’s the other pianist to see this weekend. They were crackling the other night.