Friday, November 15, 2013

TOP STORY >> Piano trio thrills LR audience

Leader editor

About 180 lucky people heard the great jazz pianist Marcus Roberts play for almost two hours last Saturday night at the South on Main Restaurant in Little Rock.

The old Juanita’s used to be in that spot, which South on Main now shares with Oxford American magazine, one of the sponsors of the Roberts concert.

Between 8 and 10 p.m., Roberts played a bluesy, soulful, swinging set and an encore (his original “Cole After Midnight”) as he evoked the history of jazz, from ragtime to hot jazz, from Ahmad Jamal to Miles Davis, from Thelonious Monk to Oscar Peterson, from Duke Ellington to the blind virtuoso George Shearing (Roberts is also sightless).

Roberts also played selections from his just-released CDs — he has three new ones out this fall — and they’re all astonishingly good.

Roberts, accompanied by Rodney Jordan on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums, opened the program with three numbers from Jamal’s repertoire, “Autumn Leaves,” “Billy Boy” and “Ahmad’s Blues.” Jamal, an important influence on Roberts, is another great pianist who is still going strong in his 80s.

Roberts then played Shearing’s “Conception,” followed by long excerpts from Peterson’s “Canadiana Suite” and then Jelly Roll Morton’s “Spanish Tinge.”

He played his own compositions, including “Rags to Rhythm,” “Reservoir” and “The Duo” from the new CDs, giving his sidemen generous playing time. As Marsalis and Jordan soloed, he sat motionless in front of the piano. Roberts, a youngish-looking 50-year-old, reminded me of Art Tatum, who died at the age of 47.

A music educator who grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., and who teaches at Florida State University (his alma mater), Roberts understands the music perhaps better than the masters he’s learned from. A younger musician like Roberts appreciates the originators of the music, and because of his training, he is completely in control of his instrument.

Roberts has been recording with Wynton Marsalis (Jason’s older brother) since the 1980s. “When he plays, you feel the spirit of the sanctified church,” Marsalis says. “You are inspired by the complexity of the human mind, and you want to dance. That is Marcus Roberts, genius of modern piano.”

Roberts is heard on Marsalis’ “J Mood” and “Live at Blues Alley” from the 1980s and “Live at the Village Vanguard” from 1990-94, all from Columbia. The last is a seven-CD box set where he shares piano duties with Eric Reed. It can be had for a bargain on eBay.

Roberts began recording as a leader in 1988, starting with “The Truth Is Spoken Here” with Wynton Marsalis, Charlie Rouse (Monk’s longtime tenor saxophone player) and Elvin Jones, John Coltrane’s most important drummer.

Roberts has just issued two excellent new CDs with Wynton Marsalis: “Together Again in the Studio” and “Together Again in Concert” from J-Master Records. (Roberts’ nickname was Jazz Master when he was part of Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Orchestra.) Lots of standards and modern jazz (“Giant Steps”) and it’s all first-rate.

Like Bill Evans, Roberts sounds best in a trio setting, such as his cool “Cole After Midnight” from 2001. Another new CD from his trio, “From Rags to Rhythm,” also from J-Master, is perhaps his best since “Deep in the Shed,” Roberts’ 1989 masterpiece with members of the Lincoln Center Orchestra.

The new CD, which is also available as a download, has superb sound, filled with gospel-flavored originals that swing and shout, proving once again that the Roberts trio is the premier jazz ensemble performing and recording today.