Jazz Pianist Gives Holiday Classics A New Swing

On his new album, Celebrating Christmas, veteran jazz pianist Marcus Roberts turns out a ragtime rendition of "Joy to the World," as well as other smooth but cheerful versions of holiday classics like "Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!" Host Michel Martin speaks with Roberts about his desire to get toes tapping during the holidays.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, since I broke my arm a couple of weeks ago I've had some thoughts on the kindness of strangers and how it's given me an appreciation for those who have sacrificed much more than I have for this country. I'll share my thoughts in my weekly Can I Just Tell You commentary; that's coming up.

But first, it is Christmastime for those who observe, and even many people who are not particularly religious are looking forward to celebrating with family, food and maybe some mistletoe.

And what goes better with all of that than a little holiday music?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAROL OF THE BELLS")

MARTIN: But if you're like me, you might be looking for something a little jazzier for your holiday classics like "Carol of the Bells." So how about something like this?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAROL OF THE BELLS")

MARTIN: That is Marcus Roberts Trio with its version of the Christmas classic "Carol of the Bells." Accompanying Marcus Roberts is Rodney Jordan on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums. Their album "Celebrating Christmas" features jazz renditions of classic Christmas songs, and jazz pianist and trio leader Marcus Roberts is with us now. Welcome, Merry Christmas to you.

MARCUS ROBERTS: Merry Christmas, Michel.

MARTIN: So, you know, I don't know, maybe it's because I'm not a musician that whenever I see someone taking on a Christmas album project, I always wonder: How can you come up with something new to say about these classic songs, especially because this is your second Christmas album, right? You did one a couple of years ago. So what was it that was kind of itching to get out that you felt you had to say this time?

ROBERTS: Well, part of it, I think, is the fact that our newest trio member, Rodney Jordan, has been playing with us now a couple of years. So part of it was just wanting to have something that had our sound, like this new trio sound that we feel we have, and also these are standards that we grew up listening to. So I guess as I advance career-wise and musically, I'm always looking for, you know, ways to re-energize myself.

So I thought it would be time - 20 years is probably time enough to do another record.

MARTIN: And you know, looking at the liner notes, you put a lot - forgive me, I hope this doesn't sound patronizing because of course you put thought into it, but you put a lot of thought into each and every selection, and one of the things that I appreciate is you try to explain what your thinking was behind each and every selection.

So could you just give us an example of something? Just like pick something and just say, look, I really wanted to record this piece, and this is why.

ROBERTS: Well, first of all, I wanted every song to be recognizable. I wanted people to be able to hum along. So for example, we - you know, we start the record with "Jingle Bells," which, you know, we've all been singing since we were like four years old, right? I wanted to make sure, though, that we put a different kind of groove on it, different kind of pulse on it, but still have it where people could still sing along. So that was my challenge.

So with each song I just - honestly, I was a little selfish. Well, what Christmas songs do I really like? Like what songs are making me go I got to do this one? Because I had a list of like 25 songs. I knew I couldn't do 25 songs, so I had to narrow it down to these are the ones I really have to do.

MARTIN: Well, see, this is nice because you opened the door, since you said you just picked what you like. But you've opened the door for me. I'm going to play one that I like.

ROBERTS: There you go.

MARTIN: Thank you for that. Merry Christmas to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: Yes, indeed.

MARTIN: Let me just play one of my favorites. This is "Let it Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow." Let's play a little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "LET IT SNOW, LET IT SNOW, LET IT SNOW")

MARTIN: Now, I have to admit that one of the reasons that this cracks me up and that I enjoy it is that I understand that you recorded this during the summer in Tallahassee, Florida.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: Exactly.

MARTIN: So...

ROBERTS: Yes I did.

MARTIN: So I have to know how you and your trio mates got yourselves into the mood. Did you just crank up the AC and like throw on a scarf?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Or like what did you do to get yourself into the mood?

ROBERTS: Well, you know, artists do a lot of pretending. You know, I mean we're all actors I guess in a way so we have to learn how to project moods that may or may not be consistent with actuality. So we just had to pretend like we were in a cold place, in a cold climate, and again it helped that that is one of my favorite Christmas songs.

MARTIN: And I learned - you know what? I learned again from, again I learned from the liner notes that - I know coming across as a liner note nerd, I know that sounds if such a thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: That's all right.

MARTIN: But that I learned from the liner notes something I never knew before, which is that this song was actually written in Hollywood on one of the hottest days of 1945.

ROBERTS: That's what I understand. And, you know, that just goes to show you with a lot of music, when you could start to getting the real details behind it, I swear sometimes you're like, what? You're kidding, right? But it just goes to show how imagination is a big part of artistic output and that's one of the reasons why whether it's a Christmas record or some other kind of holiday record what we always want to do is communicate emotion and feeling through our technical prowess and musicianship.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are enjoying a fresh take on some classic holiday tunes with jazz musician Marcus Roberts. His trio recently released a new Christmas album; it's called "Celebrating Christmas."

You know, to that end, another song I want to talk a little bit about is, I know a song that resonates with so many people, particularly we still have, you know, troops overseas, serving overseas really...

ROBERTS: Right.

MARTIN: ...anybody who is able to make it home for Christmas or the holidays - whatever holiday that is - and, of course, the song is "I'll Be Home For Christmas." And I'd like to play a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS")

MARTIN: Now I think many people probably remember that this song was first recorded by Bing Crosby in 1943, which was a time also when America and much of the world was at war and, you know, how timely - given that this country is still at war. One of the things I was wondering though, Marcus, is that the emotional impact of many songs, particularly at holiday time, do relate to the lyrics. How do you create that intensity of feeling without the lyrics?

ROBERTS: Well, one of the things we have to do is we have to make sure that we play the instrument in such a way where it still has a vocal quality to it. So that means that we have to think about leaving space so people can digest and really understand what you're saying to them. So you'll notice even with that song right there, I'm pretty much just sticking to the melody of the song and so I'm not doing a whole lot of calisthenics pianistically(ph) or dealing with a whole lot of necessarily virtuosity. It's all about sound and mood and just trying to capture the original feeling of it, you know, without playing stuff that interferes with someone getting it.

MARTIN: So this is not an album where it's all about you.

ROBERTS: No. No. No. No. I mean one of the things I definitely wanted to do was make sure that any audience or anybody who hears this music does not need a dictionary to know what we're trying to do. And, you know, we want the music to be accessible without being patronizing. You know, we want people to be able to enjoy it, put it on. Its function is really to be what ever people need it to be for their holiday enjoyment.

MARTIN: Is there a song that posed a particular challenge for you in trying to translate the spirit or achieve the spirit or the flavor that you were hoping to achieve?

ROBERTS: "The Twelve Days of Christmas," that one was hard because we wanted to go through all 12 keys and the melody without the words definitely can get repetitive, so we had to figure out different ways to kind of spice it up and keep a person interested when you get to that seventh to eighth day, you know. So we did what we could and I felt we were pretty successful at that.

MARTIN: OK. Well, let's let the folks be the judge. I'm going to play a little clip. How about that?

ROBERTS: All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS")

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask? Well, how does Marcus Roberts celebrate Christmas?

ROBERTS: To be honest with you, I'll probably be studying because I'm supposed to be starting a piano concerto project for the Atlanta Symphony, so I'm going to be deep into that all over the holidays. But I will definitely find time to get me some good food and watch a little football and find time to show some gratitude for, you know, the type of year, you know, that I've had. I mean I think we're all looking back at all the many blessings that we've been fortunate enough to have so it's definitely always a period of reflection and planning too because, you know, when you're an artist it just never stops, so...

MARTIN: You know, I hate to be crass, but is there something that you want Santa Claus to bring you that I could perhaps pass on a message that you are too modest to pass along?

ROBERTS: Oh, really?

MARTIN: Because, you know, I have connections. You know that, right?

ROBERTS: Oh, you do?

MARTIN: Well, you know, I have little kids...

ROBERTS: Well...

MARTIN: So of course I have Santa on speed dial.

ROBERTS: Hmm. Well, my...

MARTIN: I have to report behavior, plus and minus. So...

ROBERTS: Wow.

MARTIN: ...if I could pass on a message...

ROBERTS: How about a new iPhone?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK.

ROBERTS: No, because they're...

MARTIN: Duly noted.

ROBERTS: ...they're accessible. You know, one of the great things about the iPhone is that it's got a speech program on there so if you turn that speech program on then it'll tell you exactly what's on the screen. So many blind people are very excited about it and have been using it for a long time. So I plan to get in on it sometime soon.

MARTIN: OK. And I just have to assume, since I don't have my elves putting eyes on you, that you do belong in the nice column, not the naughty column...

ROBERTS: Yes ma'am.

MARTIN: ...and all is clear.

ROBERTS: I hope so.

MARTIN: OK.

ROBERTS: Yes, ma'am.

MARTIN: Excellent.

ROBERTS: I hope so.

MARTIN: Just, you know...

ROBERTS: Just checking. Yeah.

MARTIN: Had to verify.

ROBERTS: I understand.

MARTIN: Trust but verify.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, it's a pleasure talking to you, as always. Before we let you go, is there a song from your album that you think we should go out on?

ROBERTS: "Little Drummer Boy." I like that.

MARTIN: OK. OK. All right. Well, happy holidays to you and to the trio and all your loved ones.

ROBERTS: Well, thank you so much. It's a pleasure to talk to you, as always, and you have a great show.

MARTIN: Marcus Roberts is a jazz pianist. He leads Marcus Roberts Trio. Their latest album is "Celebrating Christmas." It's out now. And he was kind enough to join us from member station WFSU in Tallahassee, Florida.

Marcus Roberts, thank you so much.

ROBERTS: Thank you, Michel. My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE DRUMMER BOY")

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