Jelly Roll Morton is one of the two major pianists who took ragtime and turned it into jazz (the other being James P. Johnson in NYC). In his famous Library of Congress recordings, he played Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” in an approximation of Joplin’s style, followed by his jazzified “Jelly Roll” style. He also on another occasion recorded a transformation of Joplin’s “Original Rags.”
27-year-old pianist Kris Tokarski, a Berklee School of Music grad, moved to NOLA from the NYC area five years ago. Like many recent young transplants, he’s multi-stylistic, from rag and trad jazz to bebop (Barry Harris being a particular favorite), and he plays them well. Given Jelly Roll’s recorded legacy, it was a natural idea for Tokarski to conceive an entire album of Mortonized, or “New Orleans Style” rags.
The transformation doesn’t always work, especially on a genteel piece like “Heliotrope Bouquet.” But there are many moments which will delight the listener, particularly if he/she knows the originals (by Joplin, Marshall, Lamb, Scott, Hampton and Turpin) as well as Morton’s playing. Drummer Hal Smith, who’s spent 40 years mastering early jazz styles, and the fine local bassist Cassidy Holden, accompany on half of the tracks.
Learning to play in Morton’s style is a lifelong endeavor, and for Tokarski to have grasped so many of the elements in his 20s, and to have applied them so creatively, is impressive. Let’s hope he has another 50 years to follow in this direction.