Marcus Roberts keeps looking back | Bleader

Marcus Roberts keeps looking back

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Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and pianist Marcus Roberts are old pals, and I'm sure it's at least in part because they both like to wax pedantic about the primacy of early jazz styles. Not at all by coincidence, both men seem to represent the pinnacle of jazz to Tribune critic Howard Reich.

On his first new album in eight years, New Orleans Meets Harlem Vol. 1 (J-Master), Roberts is joined by bassist Roland Guerin and drummer Jason Marsalis for a program that includes some Jelly Roll Morton gems from the earliest days of Crescent City jazz, a couple Scott Joplin rags, Duke Ellington's "Black & Tan Fantasy," a few Fats Waller classics, two Thelonious Monk pieces, and a single original.

That's not a very adventurous selection of tunes, but Roberts chose them to illustrate the lineages and connections in the early development of jazz--and luckily it's easy to hear for yourself the way traits from various traditions overlap in the performances, because the pianist's explanatory liner notes are pretty damn boring. Of Morton's "New Orleans Blues" he writes, "Our version . . . starts with call and response between the piano and bass before we settle in to a relaxed groove. We play the main melody over a 12-bar blues form and after the drum and bass solos, we again settle into a swing groove. The piano solo serves as a bridge to the song's final section." Has your appetite been sufficiently whetted?

It's too bad Roberts is such a lousy salesman, because the music on the album is exceptionally well-made--it's pretty great how the trio can transform a piece like Joplin's "The Entertainer" with bits of stride, elegant hard bop, swing, and other unexpected accents, all without destroying its familiar character. Roberts doesn't reinvent the piece so much as use it to illustrate what some of its components contributed to the four or five subsequent decades of jazz.

The trio from New Orleans Meets Harlem is the core of the septet that Roberts leads tomorrow night at Symphony Center--the additional members are trumpeter Marcus Printup, trombonist Ron Westray, reedist Wes Anderson, and saxophonist Stephen Riley. Strangely they'll focus not on material from the new record but on 1990's Deep in the Shed. I'm sure the performances will be terrific, but I think it's a little premature for a 45-year-old guy to be spending so much time in his own past.

Today's playlist:

Arve Henriksen, Cartography (ECM)
Halil NecipoÄŸlu, Semavi DuyuÅŸlar (Rec by Saatchi)
Stephen Prina, Push Comes to Love (Drag City)
Jimmy Smith, Live at the Club Baby Grand, Vol. 2 (Blue Note)
Warsaw Village Band, Infinity (Barbés)

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