Review: Marcus Roberts, Gateshead

“Roberts is too elegant and maybe too classically-trained to go for 'filth', but a majestic bluesiness, with physicality and movement in the attack, permeated his Coltrane playing,” says ANDY HAMILTON

Marcus Roberts TrioThe one-time Wynton Marsalis pianist hasn't been heard too often in the UK, so I was eager to catch him with bassist Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis – Wynton's youngest brother – in the excellent Hall Two at the Gateshead International Jazz Festival. In 1985, at age 21, Roberts joined Wynton Marsalis's band where he remained for six years, appearing on, among other albums, the intermittently infuriating Marsalis Standard Time with its tricksy arrangements of standards. There were hints of that in the first part of this concert, whose two halves were played continuously over an hour and three-quarters – hardly short measure.

The first half featured Cole Porter songs in engaging arrangements, pleasing enough but with no one really digging in – rather polite and on occasion twee.  The opener, Night and Day, interwove its theme rather intriguingly with Coltrane's A Love Supreme – a hint of the Coltrane sound to come.  I've Got You Under My Skin, What Is This Thing Called Love, Anything Goes and Just One of Those Things followed in similar vein, with the intensely bluesy Anything Goes the most successful.  A version of Monk's Misterioso and a vivid impression of the New Orleans second line in a drum feature by Jason Marsalis provided a link to the second part of the concert, featuring a Coltrane suite based on Crescent. This is when things finally took off.

I'd been thinking of Cecil Taylor's famous description of Horace Silver's playing, with "the real thing of Bud [Powell], with all the physicality of it, with the filth of it and the movement in the attack," and how this music didn't have these things. Marcus Roberts is too elegant and maybe too classically-trained to go in for "filth", but a majestic bluesiness, with physicality and movement in the attack, permeated his Coltrane playing. The gorgeous Crescent was followed by Wise One in a rather questionable Latin feel, but with Bessie's Blues deep in the pocket, the players were working towards peak performance. Spiritual, where Jason Marsalis reinterpreted the marvellous spacious feel that Elvin Jones created for Coltrane, was the high-point.

The whole concert featured fine playing from a great American trio, whose time was an absolute joy. Roberts is never less than interesting, and one of most recent recordings, New Orleans Meets Harlem from 2007, shows how the ragtime, blues, and New Orleans roots of jazz can be the basis of a virtuosic new sound. That's what he realised in the best of his playing here, deeply and intensely informed by the whole history of the music.


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