Sunday, January 25, 2015

Scott Joplin’s “Euphonic Sounds” vs. Jelly Roll Morton’s “Freakish” - - Classical Aspirations vs. Modern Accommodation

Scott Joplin

Jelly Roll Morton

We celebrate both Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton as American originals and classicists. Joplin (1867-1917), as the “King” of classical ragtime composers and Morton (1890-1941), as a progenitor of what has come to be considered early jazz, both as composer/arranger and (thankfully),  recorded performer.    

Joplin was a classicist in the most traditional and technical sense.   His piano writing adhered to European music theory practices in harmony, voice leading and compositional form.  (For example, there’s little difference between the highly, formulaic musical structure of Joplin rags and Sousa marches: AA/BB/A/CC/DD). 

The magnificent results of Joplin’s’ genius was his blending  of European classicism and African American derived folk melodies -  both inextricably bound to  a uniquely  subtle and sophisticated binary, ragtime syncopation.  (On occasion, there is even an early suggestion of blue-notes  - flatted 3rds, 5ths - but these are always supported by conventional harmonies or quickly resolved as non-harmonic tones).    

 “Euphonic’s Sounds” (1909),  comes from a particularly rich year of Joplin rag composition. It also coincides with the beginning of Joplin’s obsession to write his grand, ragtime opera, “Treemonisha".   By 1907, Joplin had moved to New York City in order to be in a more compatiblle cultural environment that might artistically and financially support a staging of “Treemonisha”.

All this is to say,   if you’re familiar with Joplin as the composer of “Maple Leaf Rag”, “Easy Winners” and “The Entertainer” – you may well be surprised by Euphonic Sounds' very ambitious and surprising composition.

Clearly, Euphonic Sounds is a rag. It adheres to Joplin’s (and generally), classical ragtime's consistent use of sequential  16-bar strains.  Certainly, its 4-bar intro and first theme sound fairly much like business as usual.

The second theme, however, is where the traditional ragtime wheels come off, and even the initiated may think they’re losing count.  Yes, there are plenty of two-bar repetitions as befitting Joplin’s 16-bar strains, but in “Euphonic Sounds”; they serve an entirely different purpose.

To illustrate this point, let’s look at the arch-typical second-strain of  Joplin’s 1908 rag, “Fig Leaf”.

Here, the 16 bars strain conforms to 2, clearly defined -8 bar segments, divided into 4-bar phrases with clear thematic reiteration:

2nd Strain: “Fig Leaf”

----------- 16 bars ------------

1st half:  4+4: 2nd half: 4+4)

 Conversely, and quite atypically, “Euphonic Sounds'” second strain creates a 16-bar, through-composed arc, whose melodic material evolves through several jarring modulations, reaching a highly romantic climax at bar 13:

Additionally, as Rudi Blesh and others have noted, there is a suspension of the traditional bass-note-chord construct, a hall mark of not only ragtime in general, but upcoming stride piano playing.  

Stride pianist, James P. Johnson (for one), cited “Euphonic Sounds” for its modernism.  But while mind reading should never pass for scholarship, was Joplin’s rebellious  2nd strain  in Euphonic Sounds  more focused on expanding his concept of ragtime into another form of classical music, or  even so-called, serious modern music?  

And what was Jelly Roll Morton thinking when he imposed the descending, parallel  voicings  of disorienting  dominant 9th chords in 1929’s “Freakish”?  

Was Morton, on the cusp of being passe, thinking of cornetist, Bix Beiderbecke’s 1926 foray into impressionism called “In a Mist” (played quite well, actually, by Bix on piano)?  Or, was he simply  trying to say,  Don’t tell me, I get this modern stuff!”  And if he did get it, he may well have signaled  he didn’t much care for it my calling his composition “Freakish”.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love “Freakish”, and thanks to the most excellent transcriptions of James Dapogny (in this case, transcribed from Morton’s 1938 Smithsonian recordings with Alan Lomax,  at a more relaxed,  “Don’t tell me, I get this swing-thing” tempo),  I very much enjoy playing it.

But was Morton trying to sound modern, or was he mocking it?   After all, Morton’s  “Freakish” conceit was about juxtaposing the dominant  9th   chord sonorities with more and longer sections based on more like ragtime-like lyricism and harmonies.

But for Morton, "Freakish" was another tune of many in his club date and recording career. Joplin’s Euphonic Sounds  might have been a 16 bar cry for a different kind of recognition.


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