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Will the Real Marcus Roberts Step Up?


HOLLYWOOD — Pianist Marcus Roberts has had a look of remarkable versatility for the last few years. His reinterpretation of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" was one of last year's jazz highlights, he has performed a number of extraordinary concerts as a solo pianist, played with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and released several impressive recordings of his trio playing originals and standards.

"When people ask me what I do," Roberts said recently, "I say, 'I present the piano.' I like to accompany, I like to play solo and trio, I like to play with septet. It doesn't matter which."

So there was every reason to hope that Roberts' appearance at Catalina Bar & Grill this week with his trio would continue his string of impressive appearances. But his opening night performance on Tuesday left a bit to be desired.

The first indication that something unexpected was in the wind came when Roberts walked on stage accompanied not only by bassist Thaddeus Expose and drummer Ali Jackson, but also by Marcus Printup. The trumpeter has worked closely with Roberts in a number of settings, including the Gershwin project, so his presence at the very least promised some musical compatibility. What was obvious, however, was that this would not be the promised performance by the Roberts trio.

It was, instead, a pure quartet gig, focused around a few Roberts originals, a standard ("Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise") and the jazz chestnut, "Centerpiece." Nothing wrong with that, for the most part. Printup made the decision to work acoustically, without benefit of a microphone, and the result was an unusually intimate, upfront musical sound. And, especially, as the set proceeded, he played with exceptional vigor in a style that managed to sound contemporary while still retaining traces of New Orleans tradition.

But Roberts, in the quartet setting, sounded subdued and somewhat disconnected. And, despite his assertion that he is as content to accompany as he is to play an upfront role, the striking imagination that usually characterizes his work as a solo performer, composer and leader was rarely present.

* The Marcus Roberts Trio, with guest artist Marcus Printup at Catalina Bar & Grill through Sunday. 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., (213) 466-2210. $13 cover Sunday, $16 cover tonight and Saturday, with two-drink minimum. Roberts performs two shows nightly.

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