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What Jelly and George shared

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Upcoming shows at Dakota Jazz Club will feature music of two 20th century musical icons

By MORDECAI SPECKTOR

Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941), ragtime pianist, composer and bandleader, is seen as a pivotal figure in the development of jazz. His song “Jelly Roll Blues” was the first published jazz composition, in 1915.

George Gershwin (1898-1937), pianist and composer of enduring popular and classical music, was deeply influenced by the jazz sounds of his day, which found their way into such memorable works as “Rhapsody in Blue,” “An American in Paris,” and the opera Porgy and Bess.

Aaron Diehl, a rising star as a pianist and composer, has created a program titled “Jelly and George,” which he will present Feb. 21-22 at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. A stellar group of musicians will be featured in the four shows later this month.

Aaron Diehl (Photo: John Abbott)

Among the featured performers are jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, who has garnered critical acclaim and a rapt following over recent years; and Adam Birnbaum, a hugely talented jazz pianist and composer.

“We’re working on it right now,” says Adam Birnbaum, about the “Jelly and George” show. “It’s brand new, so this will be the first tour that you guys will be seeing.”

During a phone conversation from his home in New York City, Birnbaum, a 37-year-old Boston area native, explains that “it’s a two-piano show and it features the music of Gershwin and Jelly Roll Morton, who were two people that lived in the same time period, and you can draw a lot of parallels musically between what they did. But they’re obviously people that lived very different lives, probably never would have actually met; so it’s kind of like imagining what their music would look like if it… came together.”

The two composers had “a lot of musical commonalities,” according to Birnbaum. Gershwin likely was familiar with Jelly Roll Morton’s music, “but they hung out in different circles,” comments Birnbaum. “Jelly Roll Morton grew up in New Orleans, playing in whorehouses and other places; and Gershwin’s a New Yorker. They have their different backgrounds.”

Adam Birnbaum: The idea is to mix it up in a way that creates one tapestry.

As for the musical commonalities, Birnbaum mentions that both men “had a sense of jazz music being really important and trying to elevate it beyond, well, to use again the whorehouse analogy… to elevate it into something like classical music and to make it… something that can be maintained for future generations.”

The young pianist mentions that people are familiar with Gershwin’s aim in writing “Rhapsody in Blue,” to “bring the sounds of jazz into classical halls for audiences that may not have been familiar with jazz.”

And Jelly Roll Morton, as mentioned at the top, “was the first person to copyright his own compositions with the Library of Congress, very early on,” says Birnbaum. “He saw that the way to legitimize the music was to sort of engrave it… to show that these compositions were worthwhile to be presented at the Library of Congress and be preserved like a score by Beethoven or anything else.”

Aaron Diehl described his concept to Birnbaum as an effort “to blur the boundaries between the two composers, so their compositions will be interspersed in the show, and there will be different instrumentation,” including solo piano, duo, trio and the full ensemble.

“The idea is to mix it up in a way that creates one tapestry, and you really wouldn’t necessarily know whether one piece is by Gershwin or Jelly Roll,” adds Birnbaum.

The program also will feature Diehl and Birnbaum playing Gershwin’s “Three Preludes” — “it’s a classical work, but very jazzy… the second one is really famous” — as a duo with two pianos. “We’re doing it reinterpreted, our own way, so some of the sections are opened up for improvisation. You’ll hear the original stuff, but we’re kind of playing around with it — making it more like a jazz composition.”

In addition to Diehl and Birnbaum on pianos, and vocalist McLorin Salvant, the “Jelly and George” shows will feature Evan Christopher, a spectacular clarinetist who will bring the New Orleans vibe to the fore on Jelly Roll Morton tunes.

Cécile McLorin Salvant (Photo: Mark Fitton)

Rounding out the group are Corey Wilcox, trombone; Bruce Harris, trumpet; Paul Sikivie, bass; and Lawrence Leathers, drums.

While you’re reading this issue of the Jewish World, Birnbaum will be performing with Oran Etkin (5-9-14 AJW) at the Red Sea Winter Jaz Festival in Eilat, Israel. Etkin, a wonderful clarinetist and saxophonist, will be presenting a show titled “Re-Imagining Benny Goodman.”

“It’s a great festival,” says Birnbaum, recalling the summer version of the jazz showcase. “Eilat is beautiful — it’s a beach resort town in Israel. It’s a nice place to hang out for a few days. You play really late, it’s so hot there that the performances are at 10:30 or 11 p.m. usually. You have all day to relax and enjoy yourself… it’s a lot of fun.”

In wrapping things up, Birnbaum probably won’t mind a mention of his new album, Three of a Mind (Daedalus Records), a trio recording of his original songs. The album showcases Birnbaum’s captivating harmonic approach, which reveals new angles and layers with each listen. He is backed on the album by longtime musical mates Doug Weiss, bass, and Al Foster, a legendary jazz drummer still going strong at the age of 74.

“I’ve toured in Al’s band. I’ve been touring in his quartet for eight years… and that’s the rhythm section in that band,” Birnbaum notes, regarding Weiss and Foster, who provide the bottom on Three of a Mind. For the new album, “I would have them record my music, kind of flip it around. We have a pretty good musical rapport from all of the hours we put in together.”

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Aaron Diehl presents “Jelly and George,” featuring Cécile McLorin Salvant and Adam Birnbaum, at 7 and 9 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21 and Wednesday, Feb. 22 at the Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant, 1010 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis. For tickets, call 612-332-5299, or go to: dakotacooks.com.

(American Jewish World, 2.10.17)

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