Pianist Marcus Roberts joins guest host Christian McBride for a set including tunes by Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, as well as a few of Roberts' original compositions. Roberts hails from Jacksonville, Fla., and began studying piano shortly after losing his sight at the age of 5. Since then, he's developed command over a wide range of jazz styles, punctuated by his uniquely modern ability to swing on practically any tune.
Roberts kicks off this week's session with a solo take on Hoagy Carmichael's "Nearness of You." He puts a special sparkle on this well-known melody, playing lush chords as well as trilling notes in a ragtime feel with his right hand. McBride nails the description: "Absolutely gorgeous."
Next, the pair discusses the importance of understanding the fundamentals of jazz. Roberts teaches in the Florida State University School of Music, and he describes the inherent difficulty in teaching jazz, which relies on improvisation rather than a codified set of exercises for beginners.
"The music presumes that [the student] is already at an adult level of musical maturity," Roberts says. "We don't have a particular set of pieces for young folks with limited technical ability. But I think if we focus on teaching diligence and developing a codified system for students, we can use that to develop the imagination."
Roberts then reflects on getting in with Wynton Marsalis' band. Initially, the young Roberts was discouraged after seeing Marsalis and company at the Village Vanguard, but he was eventually invited to join in for a few gigs.
"After the first week of hanging out, we became very close, because we do see things philosophically in very similar ways," Roberts says.
The session continues with Roberts' arrangement of the well-known Ellington tune "Mood Indigo." Roberts counts Ellington among his earliest influences, and has great admiration for Duke as a pianist.
"Absolutely, Duke was a great pianist," Roberts says. "He always used the piano to set the mood and the tempo, and behind solos to keep band members in tune with the melody."
Roberts follows "Mood Indigo" with his original tune, "The Party's Over," which reveals his complexity as a composer with something unique to say. This 12-bar blues alternates between swift, swinging measures and brooding, impressionistic passages. Roberts manages to take the listener on a journey in the manner of McCoy Tyner or Randy Weston, but with Ellington-esque elegance. The ride is comfortable, but darkness lurks ever nearby; the effect is like sailing a plush ocean liner under gathering clouds.
Connecting Jazz And Classical
Roberts and McBride then get together for a fun duet in "Just Friends," followed by another Roberts original, "Hidden Hues" — a quiet, impressionistic tune that nods to the influence that classical music has had on jazz.
"Classical and jazz are both very sophisticated art forms," Roberts says. "Jazz has a much shorter history, but since we make stuff up on the spot, I think that's why we got so much done in 100 years' time.
"Today, we live in such a technological world where things happen in a split second, and jazz is the only music that matches that," he adds. "It's also a global music that draws from traditions all over the world. So I think classical music has to, at this time, draw from the influence of jazz to maintain its depth."
The session continues with a duet in "Bolivar Blues," by another influential composer, Thelonious Monk. The pair swings hard on this tune: Roberts' playing is technical and precise, yet powerful, and he comps McBride's bass solo beautifully. Monk's music provides the proper playground for any jazz duet, and the joyful exchange between the two musicians is impossible to miss. McBride sums it up: "You can never play enough Monk."
They get together for one more cooking duet — Roberts' driving "Country By Choice" — to end this Piano Jazz session.