Pianist Marcus Roberts, like his mentor and onetime boss Wynton Marsalis, seems determined to function as a jazz renaissance man.
At the Monterey Jazz Festival last weekend, he performed a full evening's program via solo, trio and large ensemble settings. In late August, he appeared at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, playing the Gershwin "Rhapsody in Blue."
On Tuesday, he opened a six-night run at the Jazz Bakery with an 11-piece band and a program of mostly original compositions. This week's appearance is part of a Roberts tour supporting a new Columbia album--"Blue for the New Millennium"--of the same ensemble and the same music.
What became almost immediately clear in the opening set was that Roberts' linkage with Marsalis extends beyond their performance connections and into their perspectives on jazz composition. The results can be very good or very bland. In this case, they were very good, indeed. Roberts revealed composition and arranging skills not apparent in his earlier work, coming up with a set of first-rate pieces that balanced historical overview with some solid, straight-ahead jazz playing.
Like Marsalis, Roberts is a kind of jazz neoclassicist. Fascinated with the past, his works revive, reexamine and sometimes restore sounds, textures and rhythms from the jazz past. Piece after piece resonated with Duke Ellington-like textures, New Orleans rhythms and occasional dollops of ragtime melody. And virtually everything was either based upon or derived from classic blues form.
Roberts' use of the ensemble--four woodwind/saxophone players, two trumpets, two trombones and rhythm--was consistently intriguing. His charts, like those of Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, frequently called for unusual voicings, and he made liberal use of Wess Anderson's high-pitched sopranino saxophone and Ted Nash's warm-toned clarinet.
On one tune, "Any Time, Any Place," Roberts set up a series of spirited dual-instrument battles, first between trombonists Ronald Westray and Vincent Gardner, then between Anderson and Nash, and finally between Ali Jackson's drums and Roberts' piano.
But what made the music most absorbing was Roberts' refusal to be locked into a strictly neoclassical jazz format. The improvisations, throughout, were wide open, and there were any number of instrumental passages filled with free-flying sounds redolent of the jazz avant-garde.
His players, freshly arrived in town, not sure about the room's acoustics, and a bit fatigued by a busy performance schedule, started the set in unsettled fashion. But two or three numbers into the program, the music began to jell, and the near-capacity audience responded enthusiastically to Roberts' musical vision, one of the most consistently compelling in '90s jazz.
The Marcus Roberts Band at the Jazz Bakery through Sunday. 3233 Helms Ave. (310) 271-9039. $20 admission tonight, 8:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 10 p.m., and Sunday, 6 p.m.; $25 admission Friday and Saturday, 8:30 p.m.; $18 admission, tonight, 10 p.m., and Sunday, 9 p.m.