Virtuoso Pianist Marcus Roberts Uplifts the Art of Jazz at Miller Theatre


By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, January 30, 2017

When pianist Marcus Roberts and his longtime simpatico trio of bassist Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis settle into Miller Theatre for the first time, they’ll be transcending beyond a typical jazz date in the stately Columbia University School of the Arts venue. There’s a lot more at stake for the group and the audience that may be accustomed to just another swing through the standards. “I’ll keep this trio together as long as it never becomes just another gig,” Marcus says. “We help each other, and we all have fun. Honestly. And that translates to the audience. That’s the therapy they get from us.”

It’s a surprise that Roberts, one of the most prominent pianists on the scene today, is only 53. Given the adventure he’s pursued throughout his career, he’s earned the right to be granted premiere status. He was profiled in 2014 by 60 Minutes under the tag The Virtuoso. Impressive.

A Wynton Marsalis protégé and the winner of the first Thelonious Monk Competition in 1987, Roberts was born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1963. Blind since the age of 5, he started playing the piano at age 8 and began taking formal lessons when he was 12. He attended the Florida State University in Tallahassee, majoring in music and aspiring to a jazz career (he teaches inspiring classes there today).

After winning an award at a jazz conference, Marsalis invited the 26-year-old Roberts to work with his band. He soon took over the piano chair in the Marsalis quartet in 1985, a steady working relationship that ended in 1991 so that he could start his solo career (of note: Roberts returned to the Jazz at Lincoln Center fold in 1994 when he served as the music director of the org’s jazz orchestra). His beginnings were auspicious with his first three recordings (including his debut, 1988’s The Truth Is Spoken Here) rocketing to No. 1 on the Billboard traditional jazz charts.

In the ’90s Roberts scored with recordings in both jazz and classical. On his 1997 blues-drenched album Blues for the New Millennium, he wrote in the liner notes: “Since I started playing piano, I have loved playing the blues. For me, it’s essential to my artistic existence as air or water. I have always tried to use the fundamentals of jazz–call and response, riffing, breaks, improvisation–to find new ways to play the blues.”

Twenty years later what he told me then still rules: “This…showcases the music intellect, vocabulary and unique personality of each musician. The feeling of solidarity within the band makes it hard to tell when written music becomes group improvisation. We use different timbres and effects, such as vibrato, mutes or the bending of notes, to make the instruments laugh, cry, scream or express sensuality.”

He added: “Our approach to rhythm to produce syncopation (swing) is fundamental to our philosophy of blues playing. We use different grooves to create syncopation and tension, to give each piece a sense of forward motion, almost like a musical dance that is designed to combat the chaos and uncertainty of life itself.”

A singular pianist who displays complete independence of his left and right hands to play different time signatures within the same song, Roberts has used his steeped-in-the-blues sensibility to be an intrepid seeker of the new. Earlier this year, he played originals at Birdland with his multigenerational 12-piece band Modern Jazz Generation, and last year in his five-evening trio residency at Birdland, Roberts debuted music from an EP of songs, Race for the White House, inspired by four presidential candidates. On air, Roberts introduced the songs on NPR Weekend Edition on February 27. His nonpartisan songs were about Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Bernie Sanders (“Feel the Bern”) and Hillary Clinton (“It’s My Turn”). He said about the latter: “All those meter and key changes symbolize constant evolution, and Hillary has certainly evolved from her early days in Arkansas. The song has a cool stability to it, reflecting her ability to change with time while maintaining her own quiet intensity and relentless purpose.”

In 2012, Roberts paired with banjo master Béla Fleck to create the sublime album Across the Imaginary Divide. Of that project he told me, “It was like going to a place where you’re not sure if you’ll be getting any food. Someone gives you a small snack that’s incredible. And you want more, but you’re not sure if that’s going to happen. That’s the way it was with Béla…We both have a work ethic where we want the music to be right. So we rehearsed and rehearsed, but at the same time, you just want to let go and play and make the music happen.”

Currently in the works, Roberts’ first piano concerto commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Savannah Music Festival. But he keeps coming back to the love of his trio. Key to Roberts and company driving to elevate the music is the trio’s history. Marsalis has been Roberts’ drummer since 1994 and bassist Rodney Jordan came on board in 2009. Roberts as leader has instituted a collective approach for a trio where all players have an equal say as to how the music develops. “We do a lot of work together,” he says. “We work in a special way. Some of the improvisational skills we use as a trio are very complicated, but we work through them. We’re full of exuberance, and we work hard, and we’re really dedicated. We support each other.”

As for the set list for the Miller Theatre show, Roberts laughs when he says that they probably won’t do any of his candidate songs. But he does promise that the shows will be “comprehensive.” They’ll be performing originals as well as arrangements of music by the likes of Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane.

“We’re building an inexhaustible vocabulary of jazz,” says Roberts. “It’s an adventure. It’s not like jumping on a motorcycle, but the music is a wonderful world to explore. It forces you to cope with what gets thrown at you, when you have a tenth of second to decide what to play. We like taking that degree of energy and showing it to the people at our shows. We’re not going to be giving an intellectual discourse or a sermon. We’re going to be having fun while playing our uplifting music. It’s a force for good.”

Cover: Marcus Roberts; photo courtesy of artist

Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor at ZEALnyc, writes frequently for noted Jazz publications, including DownBeat and Rolling Stone, and is the author of Ron Carter: Finding the Right Notes and Bruce Lundvall: Playing by Ear.

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