The DCJF has a habit of going out with a bang, and this year is no exception: Last night’s world premiere of “The Latin Tinge of Jelly Roll Morton” at the Kennedy Center was probably the highlight of the entire festival this year. “The great Duke Ellington once said that ‘Good arranging is like re-composing,'” Paquito D’Rivera said by way of praising his frontline partner, trumpeter/arranger/director Michael Philip Mossman. “Michael is re-composing.”
Indeed, Mossman deserves all kinds of praise for his work on the Morton repertoire. His knowledge of traditional Latin music is as profound as his knowledge of jazz history, and his arrangements of “Mamanita” and “Wolverine Blues” established clearly the link between the Caribbean and the New Orleans gutbucket; it sounded surprisingly like 1910 up there. But for all their seeming antiquity, Jelly Roll’s compositions are incredibly complicated and dynamic; Mossman’s brilliance lay in making the arrangements simple. At least, they sounded simple. Setting “Black Bottom Stomp” into a mambo rhythm with ragtime phrasing on strings and horns isn’t exactly easygoing, but this ensemble pulled it off. The string quartet pulled much of the weight, establishing the melodic foundations of “Black Bottom,” “The Pearls,” and “King Porter Stomp” while the trumpet and clarinet danced atop.
Mossman treated the horns with the lightest touch; his trumpet nearly always wore a cup mute (except on “Wild Man Blues” and the shout chorus of “King Porter Stomp,” where he played open and loud), and D’Rivera exercised considerable restraint even in his hardest swinging solos (“The Fingerbuster,” “Jelly Roll Blues”), often fluttering his clarinet like a flute. The lightness was a wise decision: Either horn could easily have overpowered the entire string quartet, but Mossman elected to let each section of the band have its say.
Percussionist Pernell Saturnino did an amazing job, as well. Unlike many players, he is a profound listener, almost subliminally able to pull the rhythm back on his congas and shakere if a violinist comes in late or moves too slowly. Credited as a dancer, Mayte Vicens is actually an auxiliary percussionist, adding Spanish flair with castanets or her own stamping clogs. At some early points, when she merely showed off some flamenco dance motions, Vicens seemed extraneous, if gifted and beautiful; but by the time of the third tune, “Wolverine Blues,” her spicy tap rhythms had proved essential.
In short, it was delicacy that provided the masterstroke to Mossman and D’Rivera’s work; where Latin jazz, stereotypically, is all brilliant reds and oranges, “The Latin Tinge” was all ivory and peach, with careful and lilting rhythms rather than breakneck twists. Mossman confessed hearing a rumor that the concert was being recorded; let’s hope so.