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Marcus Roberts

The Egg
Albany, NY
January 19, 2008

by Randy Treece

This month the Egg is presenting the George Gershwin Living Legacy Project and  there is no one better to contribute to such a recognition project than Marcus Roberts, who has established himself as a Gershwin torch bearer with two recordings, Rhapsody in Blue (Portraits in Blue), which garnered a Grammy nomination, and Gershwin for Lovers. Roberts, above all modern-day jazz pianists, has been associated with the Gershwin song book, and has often performed this magnificent body of work with a full orchestra.  So, it wasn't a lark for the Marcus Roberts Trio, which included Jason Marsalis, another musical prodigy from the famous Marsalis family, on drums, and Roland Guerin, a substantial bass player, to be accompanied by the Albany Symphony Orchestra.  "Rhapsody in Blue" was composed with a piano and a larger jazz ensemble in mind but through the years has blossomed into a historical orchestral movement.  Whether the main attraction was Marcus Roberts, the Symphony, or Gershwin's music, the larger Hart Theater was at near capacity.

The evening was divided into two segments.  The first leg included the Trio playing selections by Gershwin, and then later joined by the Symphony to play "I Got Rhythm Variations,"  a signature Gershwin piece written for piano and orchestra.  The Trio covered the Gershwin songbook playing, among others, "Foggy Day", "The Man I Love," "Lady Be Good," "They Can't Take That Away from Me," "Our Love Is Here to Stay," "Embraceable You," and "It Ain't Necessarily So."  Overall, the music was intelligently played, clinging closely to the melodic and harmonic structures of Gershwin's songs.  Rarely did they stray from the Gershwin orthodoxy, thus the first half was devoid of the spontaneity we have come to love about jazz.  I could not detect any insightful interpretation of the music, at least none that I had not heard previously. One of our local critics astutely noted about Roberts, "there is too much technique and little passion."  Even the trio appearance was formal, rigid at moments, demonstrative-less, and played with too much precision - much like an orchestra reading the musical score.  In some respects, acknowledgment of this constraint is intuitive when jazz is merged with an orchestra. Yet, I can say that Marsalis' drum work, especially with the brushes, was satisfying, Guerin provided some interesting moments when taking the lead, and  Roberts' playing was well constructed.  There was one exceptional moment in the first set when Roberts displayed his technical prowess as he played concurrently two musical statements as compositional juxtapositions on "It Ain't Necessarily So."  The "I Got Rhythm Variations" segment was stated formatively to the text.   There was no "wow" factor but this portion of the show was as comfortable as an old shoe.

It was the end of the second set when Roberts threw caution to the wind and became a veritable jazz musician; then the concert became truly noteworthy.  The Symphony started this set with Gershwin's "Oh Kay" and "Lullaby."  I am a sucker for "Lullaby's" lush melodic lines and was thoroughly engaged by the Symphony's rendition.  The Trio returned and, along with the Symphony, captured the essence of Gershwin's pride and joy, "Rhapsody in Blue."  Mystically, this composition advances a broader jazz palette and calls upon a greater swing element, and the trio came through with the goods.  When it was time for the piano solos, Robert rose to the task with fiery syncopation, in both hands, sprinkling the composition with dissonance, and then the passion rained upon our ears.  This last five minutes was riveting and almost worth the price of admission. Although the evening would not have satisfied the jazz cognoscenti, it certainly was gratifying to the hundreds who braved the night to hear the rich, urbane Gershwin lexicon.

Randy Treece is an avid and ubiquitous fan of jazz music, especially on the local scene. For many years he has contributed jazz artist reviews for "A Place For Jazz "and has written album reviews on request by jazz artists. Randy resides in Albany.