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New Orleans Meets Harlem, vol. I
J-Master 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.

Waller's "Jitterbug 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.

Covering about 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 volume II.

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