Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton, wrote British critic Max Harrison, was the first jazz composer to balance improvisation with the overall demands of form. Morton's pieces, based on ragtime and blues structures, often contained two or three themes. Fifty years later, they are still among the relatively few attempts to give jazz composition a multithematic basis.
Sunday night, the Dick Hyman Septer (Hyman, piano, Bob Wilber, clarinet, Warren Vache Jr., cornet; Jack Gale, trombone; Marty Grosz, banjo and guitar; Major Holley, string bass and tuba; Tommy Benford, drums) performed Morton's music at the museum of Natural History as part of the Smithsonian Jazz Heritage Series. The music was heard in a variety of settings, including solo piano, a piano-clarinet-drums trio, a quartet with tombone-added and full septet.
The septet pieces were recreations of Morton's classis 1926-28 Red Hot Pepper group. (Benford, in fact, was the drummer on some of the original recordings.) Of the septet's 13 numbers, five were Morton pieces recently arranged in Red Hot Pepper style by James Dapogny, while the other eight were transcribed from the records.
Most of the concert's first half was professionally done, if not especially inspired. Just before intermission, though, the septet played "Black Bottom Stump," one of Morton's greatest works, and did it full justice.
The concert reached full stride after that, with excellent septet renditions of "Wolverine Blues" and "King Porter Stomp" and a roaring Hyman solo on "Fingerbreaker."