Marcus Roberts – As Serenity Approaches (1992)

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NICK DERISO: Before going out on his own, pianist Marcus Roberts learned an important thing from former bandleader Wynton Marsalis: This ability to use standards to create a context for original compositions.

Marsalis had, at this point, moved away from all-original content into a tight embrace of the repertoire — and this album by Roberts, featuring solo and duet pieces, was a fine example of what can go right with that pursuit.

“As Serenity Approaches” was in the same vein — and, to be honest, made good on — Roberts’ 1991 release “Alone with Three Giants,” devoted to Ellington, Monk and Jelly Roll Morton. Here, he explored more blues then swing — even while undertaking sure-footed forays into balladry and fleet-finger waltzing.

Guests on the duets read like a good afternoon at the Jazz Tent: Todd Williams from the Marsalis septet; both Wynton and dad Ellis, the piano-playing patriarch; and so on. (The tongue-wagger is “A Tint of Blue,” when Williams puts down his tenor mid-song and picks up a clarinet.)

Sometimes subsequently criticized for homages like this one (notably when he followed up with 1994’s “Gershwin for Lovers” and then 1995’s “Plays Ellington”), Roberts was (back then) at the forefront of a badly needed movement back toward the canon.

Revisionists want to call him conservative but, in 1992, this album — and others like it — were, to me, quite revolutionary for their freshly retro perspective.

Sure, some eventually took this oldies thing too far, none perhaps more famously than Roberts’ old boss. Still, you shouldn’t count what happened next against this album.

Roberts possesses an uncommon verve and had, even then, a command for the vocabulary of a piano jazz that can’t be denied.

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