Jazz legend/icon Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton was a New Orleans gambler, pool player, vaudeville comedian, pimp and general braggart-about-town - but mainly he was perhaps the first great jazz composer, and one of the links in the chain leading ragtime and blues into jazz. In the late 30s, when Swing was king, Jelly Roll was something of an anachronism, but a certain Mr. Lomax recognized his worth and recorded him for the Library Of Congress. The Pearls
, not be confused with a compilation on RCA of the same title, is one of four volumes of Morton in a non-record-company-exec regulated, au natural setting.
Side one is taken up with a 7-part "Murder Ballad" - and anyone who thinks pop music has been a "corrupting" influence on Our Nation’s Youth (be it of the "rock" or "rap" varieties) should listen to this "Frankie & Johnny"-style narrative. It’s a nasty, violent, coarse, sinister tale of passion, possession and Taxi Driver
-bloody revenge that would NOT be eligible for radio play today, and makes many a keepin’-it-real rapper sound as unthreatening as Bill Cosby or Wayne Brady. Side two consists of solo piano (w/ a few vocals) gems like "The Pearls," "Sweet Peter" and "Wolverine Blues." These tunes glisten with minimalist, "classical"-style simplicity and invention (one school of thought goes: ragtime was an early American counterpart to European classical music), the urban(e) Saturday-night debonair blues and clever, improvisational flair that presages Thelonious Monk and Teddy Wilson. To hear these recordings is to get in on the ground floor of the origins of the American Mythos/Experience: stories of love and murder, funky good times, suave finery, the fun to be had on the "bad" side of town, tenderness, hard-won wisdom and the soundtrack music to many a Woody Allen film. OK, so the recording quality on side one is a little rough in spots, and it's not a new release, BUT THAT'S NO EXCUSE not to pick up on an uncensored sampling of one of the cornerstones of American music, a fellow who's up there w/ Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Rodgers and Bill Monroe.