Review: ‘Jelly & George’ joins jazz pioneers Morton and Gershwin

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Review: ‘Jelly & George’ joins jazz pioneers Morton and Gershwin


Musical greats Jelly Roll Morton and George Gershwin probably never met, even though they were contemporaries in the early 20th century.

If that’s true, it’s a pity, but not a surprise: Gershwin lived in New York City, while Morton was from New Orleans. But both created seminal work from culturally diverse influences: African-American, South American for Morton; Eastern European and fellow Jews for Gershwin.

A while back, pianist Aaron Diehl decided that the two jazz pioneers should “meet” posthumously. It was a brilliant decision.

Diehl’s show, “Jelly & George” — featuring pianist Adam Birnbaum and vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant — came to the Holland Center on Sunday night. It was clear from the start that it was special, not only for the pairing between two historic composers but also for the collaboration among three emerging jazz stars.

Diehl and Birnbaum opened with Gershwin’s instrumental “Prelude I,” illustrating the composer’s roots with riffs that sounded like city life mixed in with melodies you might hear at a synagogue. Almost without stopping they launched into “Jelly Roll Blues,” joined by bass, drums, trombone and clarinet.

That one-two punch was deliberate and enlightening, a signal that Jelly and George were compatible.

What followed was illuminative, as well as musically amazing and just plain entertaining. Diehl curated a lineup of lesser-known works by the famous and celebrated New Yorker while introducing the audience to a jazz legend who’s considerably more obscure.

With “I Hate a Man Like You,” engagingly performed by Salvant, we learned Morton had a way with words along with his intricate melodies.

“I hate a man like you ... you married me, then stayed out the first night. ... You’re grinnin’ in my face, then winkin’ at my friends.”

With “Boy! What Love Has Done to Me,” we heard a side of Gershwin different from the more classical elements found in his most famous works.

In the hands of Salvant, the song was lazy, bluesy and insouciant. She has a style all her own, with a unique way of phrasing and a light, youthful sound. Her accolades, including a Grammy Award, are well-deserved.

“Spanish Swat” taught us that Morton was an aficionado of “Spanish tinge.” He believed the Afro-Latin rhythm was one of the things that defined jazz. That piece — and some of Salvant’s vocals — featured quiet passages that were meant to be performed at the acoustically acclaimed Holland. And we discovered Diehl and Birnbaum also have earned their rave reviews. On two pianos they seamlessly performed music that would humble even the most facile fingers.

In fact, Diehl dominated “Finger Breaker,” a super-speedy, nearly sadistic solo. Morton wrote it toward the end of his career — when he was toiling in relative obscurity — to prove he still had it.

The ensemble did perform one widely known Gershwin work, “I’ve Got Rhythm,” but with their own playful spin. Each musician played a snippet of the melody as a tease to the entire piece. Before long they were jamming with some incredible improvisations. As if the concert wasn’t enough, Diehl stuck around afterward for a 15-minute talkback, fulfilling the Omaha Performing Arts mission to educate.

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