Something Else! Interview: Jazz pianist Marcus Roberts

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Marcus Roberts has burst back onto the jazz landscape, 11 years after his last session, with “New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1” – one of the Florida-born pianist’s most celebrated recordings.

A rich and explorative combining of styles from across the legacy, Roberts’ record nevertheless retains its uniquely Southern voice with notable assists from longtime playing partners Roland Guerin on bass and Jason Marsalis at the drums.

Since Roberts’ “Cole after Midnight,” issued in 2001 but actually recorded in 1998, Roberts has pulled apart, then rebuilt that trio’s core sound – all the while marveling as the industry itself was forever changed by the download revolution.

Both things play a role in “New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1,” which features a remarkable interplay – from within the idiom and within the musical partnerships. Too, the album (issued on his own J-Master Records) represents a bold move away from Roberts’ long-held relationships with traditional labels — dating back to his breakthrough tenure in Wynton Marsalis’ band. “New Orleans Meets Harlem Vol. 1” is available digitally on iTunes, Amazon, eMusic, TuneCore and through his site, marcusroberts.com.

Roberts, an assistant professor of jazz studies at Florida State, spoke with us as he continued an ongoing series of concert dates, including a stop last week at Snug Harbor in New Orleans.

The first question has to be: Whatever happened to Marcus Roberts?
What happened with me, after I delivered my last record to Sony/Columbia, I knew I did not want a traditional record contract with a major label. I did not want to rush into the just-evolving transformation of the record business, either. I knew that the iTunes model was the model of the future, but that it would take time to mature. We weren’t there yet.

The second reason that it’s been this long is because I wanted to address certain issues with my trio. I thought we had work to do, things to consolidate. I didn’t want to record again until those things had been addressed musically. I went into a long period of getting back into practicing classical pieces, going back to the real foundation – to technical work on the piano. There are a litany of things to work on: Balancing voices, getting more in touch with the polyphonic – with the whole capacity of the piano.

Recording is certainly a very important part of one’s career. But it isn’t the only thing that’s involved in what you can be working on.

There is a texture to “New Orleans Meets Harlem” that stands in stark relief with the average jazz trio recording. Interplay is clearly a focus.
We are interested in exploring the history of music, but also in bringing it into the 21st century. We’re using a model that puts the bass and drums almost equal to the piano, and that makes for a richer sound, a bigger sound with more variety of texture.

We’re also interested in updating jazz so that we improvise not just on a 10-year segment of the music but coordinating with the entire history of music. If there is anything new about what we are doing, that’s probably it. After this time away, we can take that information much more appropriately into the current musical situation.

In the end, it’s all about playing for the people in such a way that there is a real exchange.

You initially came to fame as a member of Wynton Marsalis’ group (see embedded video above). How does that experience continue to influence your work?
Wynton was so organized and clear about what he wanted to do. When I left, I had to build those things myself. It took time. The final thing was finding a band that I could do those things with.

We now have a mature trio sound; it’s no longer speculative. At the same time, we’re not tired of exploring.

That doesn’t sound like someone who’ll be waiting another decade between projects.
Not at all. We were laying the foundation for another big stage of presenting our music. This will continue now at a much more accelerated rate.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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