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***, MARCUS ROBERTS, "Portraits in Blue," Sony Classical; ** 1/2, MARCUS ROBERTS TRIO, "Time and Circumstance," Columbia

June 23, 1996|Don Heckman

Pianist Marcus Roberts, who was a vital member of the Wynton Marsalis groups of the '80s, has been taking a path lately that parallels the trumpeter's own musical journey. Like Marsalis, Roberts has vigorously explored the jazz past--sometimes via a direct examination of the music of Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, James P. Johnson and others, sometimes as a means to expand his own compositional vision. In the case of his most recent album, "Gershwin for Lovers," the result has been both creatively successful and commercially viable; the recording was one of Columbia's major jazz sellers last year.

Roberts takes a considerably larger leap with the simultaneous release of these two albums. The first is an extraordinary recasting of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" for Columbia's sister label, Sony Classical. (Roberts is the first jazz artist signed by the division since Marsalis' signing in 1982.)

His interpretation entails an inventive rethinking of the work, moving elements around, opening up areas for improvisation and invigorating its period rhythms with a brisk, jaunty sense of swing rarely present in standard orchestral performances of the work. Roberts' playing is precisely right--articulate and expressive in the written passages, imaginative and colorful in the improvised sections. His cadenzas are masterful reinterpretations, brilliant blendings combining the essence of Gershwin's phrases with his own spontaneous creativity.

Marcus Printup's trumpet, Wes Anderson's alto saxophone, Wycliffe Gordon's trombone and Ted Nash's clarinet occasionally burst through the fabric of the music, adding their own spirited solo contributions to the mix.

What makes the whole production work as well as it does is the manner in which Roberts has positioned Gershwin's jazz-based work within a rich jazz environment while retaining its character as a complete composition. This is not an interpretation in which orchestral segments are sandwiched between improvised jazz solos. But it is a thoughtful modification of a classic American concert work that allows for an endless range of performances, in the process giving "Rhapsody in Blue" potential new life for decades to come.

Unfortunately, the program notes are long on Roberts' description of the work and short on credits. It was performed by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and members of the Orchestra of St. Luke's, and was conducted by Robert Sadin. The album also includes an interesting version of stride piano great James P. Johnson's "Yamekraw" and Roberts' rendering of Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" Variations.

'Time and Circumstance" is, in its own way, as ambitious as the Gershwin recording. But it achieves less.

Roberts' conceptual approach assembles a group of themes into what he describes as a suite "about two people who are involved in a lifelong love affair." His detailed program description provides useful insight into each of the 14 pieces. Without the notes at hand for reference, however, the melodic content is simply not strong enough to sustain the emotional continuity that Roberts apparently had in mind.

There is, however, some powerful improvising taking place. Roberts' trio includes two remarkable teenage performers--18-year-old bassist David Grossman and 19-year-old drummer Jason Marsalis, the youngest member of the musical Marsalis clan--both of whom sound destined for significant jazz careers. Their interaction with Roberts is a joy to hear. But, in total, this is a recording that may be more admired than it is listened to, more respected for the breadth of its aspirations and the talent of its practitioners than it is enjoyed for the appeal of its music.


Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good, recommended), four stars (excellent).

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