Marcus Roberts, “The Mystery of Romance” (2014): One Track Mind

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Marcus Roberts opens his new double-album with “The Mystery of Romance,” setting the atmosphere with a lilac-scented piano exploration of love’s tenderness. Only there’s far more to this undertaking, as conveyed by the title: Romance, Swing, and the Blues. Soon that fragile intimacy has given away to a winking salaciousness, and then the roaring blood of passion as Roberts’ new 12-piece Modern Jazz Generation begins painting with bolder brush strokes.

The band — featuring veteran Roberts collaborators Rodney Jordan and Jason Marsalis, along with Ron Westray, Stephen Riley and a group of next-gen players that includes Alphonso Horne, a Roberts protege — plays with gumption, speed, finesse and emotion, conveying the broad range of emotions that surround a growing relationship. To Marcus Roberts’ credit, he doesn’t get lost in this boisterous milieu. Instead, his piano weaves in and out with a dextrous wit, like an insistent voice urging these young lovers onward.

After a period of retrenchment that saw Roberts rejoining early mentor Wynton Marsalis for a pair of Together Again projects, “The Mystery of Romance” and Romance, Swing and the Blues show he’s ready follow them on that more adventurous path. Originally commissioned via Jazz at Lincoln Center, this music has an Ellingtonian depth and sweep — but with Roberts’ fingerprints dotting the template.

That’s been a hallmark of his solo career from the beginning, as Marcus Roberts became one of the most listenable classicists out there. Principally, that’s because he didn’t settle for mimicry, didn’t go for the easy comp, and he doesn’t here either. “The Mystery of Romance” is old-school modern, done with an eye toward what’s always worked — but without indifference to the time that has passed since his heroes walked the earth. Roberts, along with a smart, multi-generational backing band, makes it all sound brand new again.

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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