Music (no catalog number; download only) 65:55
by Craig Nixon
With eleven years
between recordings as a leader, pianist Marcus Roberts returns to the studio
sounding as if he'd never left. Not that Roberts hasn't been busy - a variety
of different projects occupied the intervening years, appearing with symphonies,
composing multi-part suites and amassing awards and recognitions of all kinds.
Roberts gets back to the heart of the matter with a new recording with his working
trio of fourteen years, bassist Roland Guerin and drummer Jason Marsalis.
Not really a concept
album, as much as an album with a concept, New Orleans Meets Harlem, vol.
I is all about lineage, and shortening the degrees of separation between
New Orleans music, how it influenced the Harlem school, and how both affected
modern jazz. NOLA is represented by Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin (not
really New Orleans, but a kind of adopted son), the Harlem school by Fats Waller
and Ellington, and the modern era by Monk and Roberts himself. On paper this
might seem as if it would make for a predictable historical recital, but Roberts
recasts, re-arranges and pretty much turns inside out most of the older material,
shaping it to become his own. Just the sight of Joplin's "The Entertainer"
may have one cringing with the memory of Marvin Hamlisch, but the trio turns
the tune on its ear, with a melodic drum solo introduction, a Charleston-esque
bassline and the leader taking the melody on a virtual tour of all the earlier-mentioned
schools, changing keys, reharmonizing, tossing off quotes right and left, with
none of it coming off as grandstanding.
Waltz" is not a tune often associated with funkiness, but here given an
ostinato bassline and Ahmad Jamal-like groove, Roberts imbues the head with
some extra bluesiness and manages to grab some funky serenity along the way.
Perhaps the least known piece here, Joplin's "A Real Slow Drag" gets
a patient treatment, with a stately balladic intro, a middle section that threatens
to become a Rollins calypso, and some two-beat slap bass from Guerin.
The two Monk pieces,
"In Walked Bud" and "Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-Are" are fairly
standard in selection, but not in execution. On the former, the head is handled
by Roland Guerin, a marvelously big-toned bassist with fleet technique. Roberts
and Marsalis interject on the bridge, the pianist tastefully understating his
role. Jason Marsalis is also becoming known as an adept four-mallet vibraharpist,
and that melodic skill certainly translates to his approach to the traps. He
uses brushes more often than not on this date, but his playing is so supremely
tuneful that he could carry a whole solo set on the drums without a problem.
The pianist's own
"Searching For The Blues" closes the set and ties it all together.
A multi-sectioned piece that's indeed imbued with New Orleans, Harlem and modern
jazz (with its quick nod to McCoy Tyner), it's a fitting summation.
105 years of jazz history in the space of an hour is an ambitious task, but
on this welcome return Marcus Roberts, Roland Guerin and Jason Marsalis manage
to pull it off without talking down to the listener, and offering more than
just a history lesson. Let's hope another decade doesn't have to pass before