An Old Song For A New Depression

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Monday's Pick

  • Song: "Ain't Misbehavin' "
  • Artist: Marcus Roberts
  • CD: New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1
  • Genre: Jazz
Marcus Roberts 300

Young pianist Marcus Roberts tackles the late-'20s Fats Waller classic "Ain't Misbehavin'." courtesy of the artist hide caption

itoggle caption courtesy of the artist

In 1929, a jaunty tune called "Ain't Misbehavin' " made its debut. Performed by pianist and singer Fats Waller, who co-wrote it with Louis Armstrong and others, it was a naughty, saucy love song. A hit back in the Depression day, it's been revived in various incarnations — a rock 'n' roll take by Bill Haley and the Comets, a 1986 country smash by Hank Williams Jr., even a glam-rock makeover by the band Tiger Lily.

Now, pianist Marcus Roberts is sinking his talented fingers into the familiar melody. His instrumental take is a highlight of his new album, New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1, which salutes the great pianists of the past. Accompanied by bass and drums, Roberts spins out a lighthearted interpretation full of surprises: a staccato take on the title line, lush rolled chords that flow like honey, an insistent improvisatory flight with bebop roots.

Roberts doesn't hog the show. Bassist Roland Guerin offers a solo that sounds like a come-on from a deep-voiced player before Jason Marsalis (yes, of that family) performs a drum turn that adds oomph with resonant booms. Roberts wraps it up, ending the song with two mellow yet mysterious chords that sound neither major nor minor. They hang in the air, suspended as everyone is at this time of national woe, just as Americans were when the song first came out. The familiar lyric isn't part of this remake, but with his fluid, conversational piano style, Roberts is clearly talking to us.

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