There are jazz pianists who lead their own bands, and then there is the innovative Marcus Roberts, an Ellington acolyte and original Young Lion (along with his peer, bandleader and collaborator Wynton Marsalis). Though some critics shrugged when Roberts released his early opus, Deep in The Shed (1998), many—including me—found that work exhilarating and an essential jazz recording.
The double-disc Romance, Swing, and the Blues was originally commissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Center in 1993, but this newly recorded (2013) grand-scale work with a 12-piece band is an honest fulfillment of Roberts’s early promise as a leader, orchestrator, composer, and pianist. His group the Modern Jazz Generation features Roberts and his trio—bassist Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis—along with veterans like trumpeter Marcus Printup, tenor saxophonist Stephen Riley, and trombonist Ron Westry. It’s rounded out by a precocious group of younger up-and-comers.
Roberts reaches into the classical tradition of Gershwin and plays with an authentic signature style absorbed from 20th-century jazz composers like Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonius Monk, and Nat Cole. A genuine virtuoso, the pianist composes stories in which the instrumentation becomes the characters invoking the adventure, mystery, romance, or conflict woven through the tunes.
His writing skill and leadership are faultless. This engrossing release telegraphs its intentions with song titles like “A Festive Day,” “Evening Caress,” “It’s a Beautiful Night to Celebrate,” and the provocative “Being Attacked by the Blues,” which decidedly marks its territory with a deep, thick bass solo. It’s a poetic start to Disc Two that segues into a duet with a crisp and jaunty Roberts, before the band leaps in. That smooth brass sound is indicative of the engine that propels the pianist’s compositions—that, and a whole lot of synchronized swing.
There’s no style that escapes his pen or playing. If you caught his profile on 60 Minutes in 2014, you understand that he’s a musical encyclopedia of jazz. The tunes on Romance, Swing, and the Blues are thoughtfully sequenced and each stands on its merit, making this album essential as well. “The Mystery of Romance” from the first disc typifies all the emotional elements at Roberts’s disposal: Syncopated rhythms, big band swing, and sweeping harmonies all blend easily.
His fealty to Ellington and the Marsalis tradition of jazz (that New Orleans flavor is liberally applied) may confound those with a modern jazz bent, but Marcus Roberts is a one-of-a-kind master, relentlessly inventive and just as modern in his own way.
Marcus Roberts and the Modern Jazz Generation, live:
This article is from the March 2015 edition of ICON Magazine, the only publication in the Greater Delaware Valley and beyond solely devoted to coverage of music, fine and performing arts, pop culture, and entertainment. More Information.