Review: Marcus Roberts at LJF 2012

Simon Adams sees the Marcus Roberts trio at Kings Place in tributes to Monk and Coltrane that while immaculately delivered and well received sometimes wanted grit and momentum

Marcus Roberts TrioFor this, the first of his four-night residency at King's Place, Marcus Roberts brought in a trio with Rodney Jordan on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums. Their aim was to celebrate "Monk and Trane in the Jazz Trio", to cast "new light on the legacy of two startlingly original voices in the evolution of modern jazz." They certainly achieved that with the opening set devoted to the music of Thelonious Monk.

Monk remains an infinitely flexible inspiration, his music adaptable whoever the performer and whatever the instrumentation. Roberts presented a stripped-down Monk, devoid of whistles and bells. His approach was strongly rhythmic, creating stop-start syncopation for Evidence and a clattery percussive treatment on Green Chimneys. In an at times sentimental Light Blue, he explored all its rhythmic possibilities, speeding up, slowing down, stopping and starting as the piece demanded. Epistrophy was almost kaleidoscopic in effect, a Latin shuffle often turned inside out. Best of all was the concluding Rhythm-a-Ning, a furious full-tilt charge that brought the house down. A good choice of Monk tunes that avoided some of the obvious and introduced some rarely heard pieces made for an inspiring evening.

In a way, however, Roberts is too polite a performer for Monk, his neatly executed phrases and perfect touch missing some of the craggy solidity of Monk's own playing. He never exactly held back, but there were times I felt his playing was a tad reserved, delivering a surface charm where some gritty integrity was required. Those reservations came to the fore in the second set, devoted to the music of John Coltrane. Attempting to reproduce the sound of that famous 1960s quartet with just a trio was always asking for problems, although his choice of the five-part Crescent suite was inspired. It reminded me that there is more to long-form Coltrane than just A Love Supreme and that this is music that should be recreated more often. Jason Marsalis was up to the challenge, providing a solid platform on which the band could operate. Jordan was too reserved, while Roberts lacked the momentum necessary to carry the themes. A brave attempt, but not quite there.

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