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Marcus Roberts at UNC - Only 10 Fingers? Really?

February 25, 2005 - Chapel Hill, NC:


This is one that is going to be talked about for a long time. On February 25, the Carolina Union Performing Arts Series presented the Marcus Roberts Trio at Hill Hall on the UNC-Chapel Hill Campus. This mesmerizing jazz piano trio, consisting of Jason Marsalis, drums, Roland Guerin, bass, and Marcus Roberts, piano, were the headline act of the UNC Jazz Festival, presented under the leadership of James Ketch. This trio, however, was no stranger to this area and did not fly in and out of RDU and collect their money for a one-time gig. This was the culmination of a series of two-week residencies stretching back to last October that included workshops and lessons with students from UNC, East Chapel Hill High School, and Jordan High School. By every indication from those involved, the trio members were as masterful as music educators as they were as performers.

We got a chance to hear some of the recipients of this musical mentorship prior to the start of the show. Unfortunately, names were not listed in the program, but a very fine student jazz ensemble from UNC played for about 20 minutes before the main attraction.

Salzburg, Bonn, Vienna, and many other cities have much to be proud of as birthplaces of some of the greatest composers. Many people are not aware that North Carolina is the birthplace of many of the most influential names in the history of jazz. Two of the very biggest names, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, born in Rocky Mount and Hamlet respectively, were the artists whose works were featured in this program. An excellent brief summary of the life and work of these two jazz giants was featured in the outstanding program notes. In fact, this was the first time that I can recall where a jazz concert actually had detailed information in the program. Although there were slight changes from the printed program, there was a listing of the works played and notes on each selection as well as artist bios. This may seem like a small point, but it's high time that non-classical concerts are presented at the same level as their classical counterparts.

Marcus Roberts is, in a word, electrifying. Although he attended my alma mater Florida State University, where he studied classical piano, he soon hit the road with Wynton Marsalis and quickly became recognized as a once-in-a-generation phenomenon. Several people who are accomplished keyboard players in their own right but not that familiar with jazz piano said, after hearing Roberts play, that there is simply no one better. This is not that far-fetched as Roberts has much in common with Art Tatum, a jazz piano whirlwind of the 20s and 30s who, like Roberts, was also blind from a young age. In fact, it was quite common to catch such piano legends as Rubinstein, Horowitz, and Rachmaninov in late-hour jazz clubs, marveling, like ordinary mortals, at Tatum's playing. Much of Tatum's style is evident in Roberts' playing, as he harkens back to early piano stylings like boogie-woogie and stride in many of his solos.

Those who impose a stereotype on blind jazz/blues pianists, based on the recent success of the movie Ray, where Ray Charles is constantly moving, swaying, and fidgeting, could hardly find a more opposite demeanor than Roberts. He is as still as a statue. His technique is so fluid and seemingly effortless that the sounds roaring out of his instrument don't seem to match the controlled repose of his hands. It would have been quite a show in itself just listening to Roberts alone (and many of his recordings are solo piano), but he was on stage with two musicians every bit his equal in their own right. Bassist Roland Guerin has a rich, full tone and brilliant technique, and he finds ways to spice up the mix without resorting exclusively to a "walking bass" pattern. Drummer Jason Marsalis brings forth subtle patterns and exquisite rhythms and tones from his drum kit without overpowering the other players. (Credit should also be given to the sound engineers.) If the drummer's last name sounds familiar, it should be. He is the youngest member of the first family of jazz. Knowing that his big brother Branford has taken up residence in Durham, many had hopes that maybe he might join the jam. The program for the second half included Coltrane's revolutionary "Giant Steps," and that seemed like a good spot for the other Marsalis kid. Roberts introduced Branford and the place went wild as he nearly blew his tenor sax apart during a solo that had enough energy to light a city.

After big brother Marsalis left the stage, the trio resumed with some more Monk, Coltrane, and Ellington. In addition to technique that seems otherworldly, Roberts has the amazing ability to recall historical jazz piano styles while still infusing them with his own identity and ideas. Imagine a "classical" pianist improvising in the manner of all periods of music history, all within the context of a melodic and harmonic framework, and you can appreciate the enormity of Roberts' talent.

Despite the house lights being turned up, the audience refused to leave, and the trio, plus an additional trio, came back for a good old-fashioned cutthroat jam. Branford Marsalis, fellow tenor sax player Steven Riley, and Jim Ketch, professor of trumpet and jazz studies at UNC, came out and wailed and blew the lid off of staid Hill Hall. This was an evening not only filled with never-forget performances but also running nearly two hours of actual playing-time, it was an incredibly generous serving of the best jazz you will ever hear.