Classic Performances From The Jelly Rolls

New ZealandNew Zealand Cole Porter, George Gershwin: The Jelly Rolls ( Ben Wilcock [piano], Daniel Yeabsley [bass], John Rae [drums]). The Old Library Arts Centre, Whangarei, New Zealand, 10.4.2016. (PSe)

Cole Porter – Night and Day, You’d Be so Nice to Come Home To, Anything Goes, Begin the Beguine, Don’t Fence Me In

George Gershwin – How Long Has This Been Going On, Love for Sale, Embraceable You, The Man I Love, I Got Rhythm, Rhapsody in Blue

“Classical music” is a term that’s bandied about by all and sundry, so everyone knows what it means, don’t they? Well, yes, but if you were asked to define the term, could you? It’s a surprisingly tough one to pin down. I know, because I wrestled with it for years before I came up with anything even half-decent. If you’re interested, have a look at the addendum below this review. As it turned out, my attempted definition cast the “classical” music net wider, in what I thought seemed a pretty reasonable fashion, so that “classical” would include, for example, the songs of the likes of George Gershwin and Cole Porter.

So far, so good then, because the opening recital of Whangarei Music Society’s 2016 season was entitled The Music of Cole Porter and George Gershwin. Well, that’s what the programme said – but, as it happens, it wasn’t quite true! We heard, not music as penned by those two consummate tune-smiths, but only their melodies – which were worked into spicily syncopated, wide-ranging “theme and variation” forms. Now, discounting for the moment the element of improvisation, that adds up to a workable, albeit rough-and-ready definition of “jazz”, isn’t it? If so, can this recital still be classed as classical music, or is it really jazz? Let’s see, shall we?

Named after the illustrious jazzman Mr. Morton, the Jelly Rolls comprised Ben Wilcock (piano), Daniel Yeabsley (bass) and John Rae (drums). They looked like an archetypal “modern jazz ensemble”, but they sounded like anything but! There was none of that “profound” (i.e. incomprehensible) navel-gazing that to my mind characterises modern jazz. Neither, for that matter, was there any of that endless, empty, formulaic note-spinning – technically impressive, but utterly irrelevant to the subject melody – that you all too often get from so many famous (and not-so-famous) jazz “virtuosi”; the sort of thing that gets my toes tapping – In impatience rather than in sympathy with the beat.

But believe me, this welcome oversight wasn’t for want of the requisite technical credentials – Ben’s flying fingers, always admirably accurate, could twinkle or thunder with the best of them; John (who played here with The Troubles in October 2014), mightily adept with sticks, brushes and fingers, furnished an unfailing stream of intriguing colour; and Daniel plucked his bass, warm and resonant – gut strings, Daniel told us, with justifiable pride – with such astonishingly acrobatic agility that you’d have thought him a top-flight fiddler. The group’s fourth member, Teamwork, also played a real blinder!

The Jelly Rolls stuck close to the aforementioned jazz formula. They introduced the melody – generally emerging from an atmospheric introduction – in its original form or thereabouts, and subjected it to a stream of highly inventive variations. Moreover, these episodes were not distinct, but artfully blended into a satisfyingly logical, virtually seamless whole. So rarely was the relationship between variation and melody not apparent, that on such occasions I felt convinced that it must have been there, and somehow I’d missed it.

My one and only disappointment came in the final – and presumably climactic – item. Ben announced, “Rhapsody in Blue, but not as you know it.” Oh, he was so right. Gershwin’s work incorporates at least four distinct main subjects. Apparently sticking to the letter of the aforementioned formula, the Jelly Rolls used just one (plus, unless I’m mistaken, at one point a brief snatch of London Bridge Is Falling Down), thereby missing a golden opportunity to apotheosize their evening’s work. Nevertheless, it was as brilliantly done as all the other eleven items, including the adorable encore, a Summertime both evocative and bravura.

But, what about that improvisation business? That’s a tricky one, because the real art of improvisation lies not only in making it up as you go along, but also in making it sound as though you’re not making it up! There were no written parts in evidence and they were fluent to a fault, but that could simply mean they were playing from memory – so, in the absence of any other obvious clues, I really couldn’t say one way or the other!

However, in passing, as I’m sure you’re itching to get to the truth of the matter: I did pick up a clue after the event. I had forwarded to Ben Wilcock a copy of the review I’d written for the local newspaper, in which I’d expressed the hope that they’d taken the comment on Rhapsody in Blue in good part. Apparently they had, because Ben made this rejoinder: “As for the Rhapsody … I agree! We have five more tour dates to include the other themes. Piece of cake!”

The implication of this is that they’re working to some sort of ground plan, prepared in rehearsals. This is similar in principle to the “standard” format of jazz improvisation, which is (if you’ll forgive the pun) a ground plan based, passacaglia-fashion, on the harmonic progression established by the original tune. Both approaches use a pre-determined framework in which to work their magic. However, the “theme and variations” approach, although technically much trickier, has the inestimable advantage of flinging wide the gates to a garden of greater expressive freedom.

OK, let’s ask again: is this classical or jazz? Tempting as the “classical” elements are, I have to stand by my own definition. This makes the tunes classical, but because the works based on them are, to the best of my knowledge, unique to the performers and, probably, each performance differs from its predecessor, I’d have to say, “No, not classical”. Well, not quite! If there was any lesson to be learnt from this recital, it was how closely contingent are the realms of “classical” and “jazz”.

But, enough of discussions! What really matters is that the entire programme brimmed with entertainment and intrigue of the highest order – thrills, spills, moments of rapt contemplation, wit and humour, wistful charm, huge waves of excitement, and surprises galore. In such a situation personal tastes are irrelevant; by any standards – classical, jazz or whatever – this was MUSIC, beautiful music, wonderfully made music – and the audience loved it! As the old song so rightly says, “’t ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it” – and, make no mistake, the Jelly Rolls sure know how to get results!

Paul Serotsky

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