[This review covers the first disc of the five CD JSP boxed set of Jelly Roll Morton remasters by John R.T. Davies.]
If you've listened to a lot of early jazz before checking this out, the first thing you recognize is just how good the band is. In terms of ensemble playing, the colors of the instruments and how they are used by Morton are just as good as it gets. The Red Hot Peppers are as hot as the best King Oliver and Louis Armstrong recordings, while the colors and subtlety of tone are as good as the bands of Bix and Tram. The compositions are second to none, being the work of one off the greatest composers of any genre in the first half of the 20th century. The featured clarinetists are Omer Simeon and Johnny Dodds (with some help from Barney Bigard).
Omer Simeon, who was once called the "unsung hero" of the jazz clarinet by Barney Bigard, takes the clarinet part for the very first set, recorded in Chicago on September 15, 1926, demonstrating his excellent control of the horn and music on "Black Bottom Stomp", "Smoke-House Blues", and "The Chant." These tunes really show a depth of orchestrational ideas, ensemble sensitivity, and formal innovation not often matched in jazz, and Simeon is a perfect fit.
Someday Sweetheart has one of the earliest (if not the first) jazz bass clarinet solo, also by Omer Simeon. Omer's tone is much more beautiful than many post-bop bass clarinet solos we hear these days. Those who play this instrument ought to have an honest sound concept--strong, balanced, rich-- and this Simeon solo is a great place to start.
Simeon's playing is also on display in his breaks to open "Doctor Jazz": he then adds a clever solo made memorable by his four bar whole notes. When it comes time to trade licks the blow over the ride out chorus and breaks, Simeon shows himself once again to be one of the top clarinetists of the '20s.
"Cannon Ball Blues" is a great example of ensemble color and balance once again, the group communally composing and highlighting the well directed arrangement. There is something natural about this band--it doesn't strain at the music or at expression, but simply goes about its business creating a thoroughly satisfying blues, like late afternoon sunlight on a front porch. Sometimes it's important to just be in the music, rather than trying to say anything. Recordings like these are a perfect antidote for the cult of overwrought self expression.
The first of the Red Hot Peppers recordings featuring Johnny Dodds is called "Hyena Stomp", and the difference in the band is immediately felt. Less genteel than Simeon, more aggressive in his overall sound concept, a tune featuring rhythmic guffawing seems a great way to introduce him. Yet even with all of that, Dodds seems much more at home and relaxed in the Red Hot Peppers than in the Louis Armstrong Hot Fives and Sevens. In fact, perhaps because of Jelly Roll's dictum that an ideal jazz performance should be "sweet, soft, plenty of rhythm", Dodds is able to show a wider range of artistry and emotion. And for all their entertaining novelty qualities, none of Jelly Roll's numbers really descend into typical novelty shallowness. Instead, they seem like emotional or biographical vignettes. "Billy Goat Stomp" is another perfect example. There is actually something beautiful in this minor key tune and the subtle colorations of the band, amidst the bleating effects!
Of all the tunes he recorded, few are as closely associated with Johnny Dodds as "Wild Man Blues." He cut it no less than three times--the first on May 7, 1927 with the Louis Armstrong Hot Seven, the second just a few weeks later with Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers on June 4, 1927, and the third over a decade later, with himself as leader of Johnny Dodds and his Chicago Boys, paradoxically recorded in New York City on January 21, 1938. To compare and contrast the three is instructive. My favorite is last one, as he gives himself the melody and shows his range of soulful talking style on it. Of the two earlier recordings from 1927, I prefer the Red Hot Peppers to the Hot Sevens, but any way you cut it, it's a a special treat to hear the same man playing the clarinet parts in two important ensembles, just weeks apart.
"Jungle Blues" is another tune that uses effects but entirely avoids 'novelty' or faux-exoticism. Thanks to the gentle balance of Morton's rhythm section, Johnny is really allowed to sing, giving us the beauty of his tone shining through all his soulful figurations.
The grittier, rougher Dodds chalumeau is on display for "Beale Street Blues," and his section playing is lively and confident on that remarkable, complicated tune, "The Pearls."
The last two tracks on this album--"Wolverine Blues" and "Mr Jelly Lord"-- are taken from a session recorded in Chicago on June 10, 1927, and are of particular importance to jazz clarinetists, as they present the Dodds brothers as a trio with Jelly Roll Morton. Aside from their own musical qualities, they set precedent for the Benny Goodman trio eight years later, which was to blossom into the Goodman Quartet and Sextet; perhaps the most important work of Benny's career. Dodds is impressive throughout, grooving grittily but fleetly through "Wolverine Blues" and with that special sense of laid back, in the pocket rhythm he had on "Mr. Jelly Lord." The relaxed, perfect counterpoint between Morton and Dodds is a fitting way to end this collection, which moves from surprise to surprise and strength to strength.