YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Grand Pianist

'I love every aspect of the instrument,' Marcus Roberts proclaims, and he's getting a chance to prove it with concerts that feature a 'Rhapsody in Blue' unlike any other.

September 22, 1996|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

Marcus Roberts comes on stage with cautious steps, moving carefully, one hand on the arm of a companion. Tall, slender, stylishly dressed in suit and tie, wearing dark eyeglasses and a trim mustache, he has an elegant, self-possessed quality that belies the hesitancy of his deliberate physical movement.

Once Roberts reaches the keyboard of a grand piano placed at stage center, however, he suddenly is in full command of his environment. Carefully adjusting the level of his bench, he caresses the keys gently, almost affectionately, without producing a sound. Then, after pausing for a few deep breaths, he smiles and says, "I'm not sure what I'm going to play, but I promise you it won't be anything I can't do."

And it seems, these days, as though there is very little that Roberts can't do. He has not one, but two albums in current release: "Portraits in Blue" (Sony Classical) and "Time and Circumstance" (Columbia). The former includes Roberts' versions--with orchestra and small jazz band--of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and " 'I Got Rhythm' Variations" and James P. Johnson's "Yamekraw." The latter is a kind of extended suite for jazz trio chronicling the passages of a love relationship.

Roberts appears at the Alex Theatre in Glendale on Friday night and the Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton on Saturday, where he will perform as a soloist, with his nine-piece ensemble, and--in the program's centerpiece--showcase his new rendering of "Rhapsody in Blue."

And why is Roberts so busy?

"Well," he said, "when people ask me, 'Marcus, what do you do?' I say, 'I present the piano.' I love every aspect of the instrument. I like to accompany, I like to play solo and trio, I like to play septet, I like to play with an orchestra.

"So I guess you could say I've got the Wynton Marsalis philosophy: Document as much as you can. Put what you've got in front of the people, give them the chance to check it out and decide what they think."

There's no doubt that Roberts, 33, has been doing precisely that, pursuing Marsalis' renaissance man approach to jazz. He was 22 when he first joined the Marsalis band, and he won first prize in the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition at 25. After leaving Marsalis, Roberts--whom Marsalis has playfully nicknamed the "J Master"--recorded "The Truth Is Spoken Here," "Deep in the Shed," "Alone With Three Giants" (a tribute to Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton) and "If I Could Be With You," all for Novus, as well as some work for Columbia, including his debut album, "Gershwin for Lovers." Despite this rapid-fire rate of production, the quality of his releases was good enough make him the first musician to have his first three recordings reach No. 1 on Billboard's traditional jazz chart.

It's been a remarkable pace for a player who, despite his extraordinary abilities, still must work by memory and by rote, using Braille to write music and a computer to expand his compositional capacities. But his blindness has never stood in the way of his talent.

Perhaps the best testimony to Roberts' ability to successfully manage what he calls the challenges of blindness is the continuing expansion in his creative activities--most recently, his large-scale reexamination of "Rhapsody." Although the piece, which was composed in 1924, has been performed in a variety of instrumentations and adaptations, it has never received a reading that goes to its jazz roots.

In Roberts' version, for example, the trademark opening clarinet cadenza is momentarily delayed in favor of a brief, scene-setting banjo passage. Piano cadenzas are completely improvised, and other sections of the piece have been opened up to allow for soloing by the members of Roberts' nonet, an impressively talented ensemble that includes players such as trumpeter Marcus Printup, trombonist Ronald Westrae and drummer Jason Marsalis (the youngest of the gifted Marsalis jazz clan).

"I didn't know when we first started working on it that I would make as many changes as I did," said Roberts. "I knew I wanted some improvising by the musicians, and I knew that all the solo cadenzas would be improvised."

Once he was in the studio with the musicians, the project moved well beyond those original plans.

"We were working on this one section," he recalled, "and we put a swing groove on it, which led to us adding more and more things. Finally we just decided, what the hell, we'll just improvise on it. And the crazy thing is that the harmonic progression that Gershwin put into the middle section is like the blues--which is at the core of what the 'Rhapsody' is all about."

Does he have any reservations about making such drastic revisions in a much-loved and extremely familiar work?

Los Angeles Times Articles