LA Weekly, 11/11/98
by Greg Burk
I've woken Marcus Roberts up. Booked for an Orange County concert, he's crashed in a Costa Mesa hotel this afternoon. It's dark in here, drapes drawn. He sits in shirtsleeves on the edge of a rumpled bed; I'm in a chair, just able to make out his thin form and the glowing red dot on my tape recorder. In 10 minutes or so, I feel comfortable enough to switch on a lamp. Roberts doesn't need the light - inoperable retina cataracts closed his shutters when he was 5. We talk for an hour, and I wish it could have been six.
At 35, Marthaniel "Marcus" Roberts is acknowledged as a premier jazz pianist, composer and arranger, yet he's still lumped with the "young lions." You know, those guys in the suits. Well, Roberts did spend six years touring with Wynton Marsalis. And there's no question but that he's obsessed with the "classic" work of others. As if deliberately shading his own candle, Roberts has re-examined legend after legend of yesteryear: Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, George Gershwin, Santa Claus and The Blues. He's already recorded next year's first project, a trio session mining Cole Porter and Nat "King" Cole.
But his approach transcends mere lessons in history. While pointing his finger toward the great innovators and exploring what's special about each, he has also shown what can happen when you combine encyclopedic knowledge with an unrestrained imagination.
Take Roberts' just-released The Joy of Joplin on Sony Classical. What associations spring to mind when you think of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer"? Cute, light-hearted ragtime theme to The Sting, right? Now check out Roberts' version. He begins by playing a left-hand boogie-woogie rhythm that would come into currency only decades after Joplin wrote the tune. As he tinkles through a thoughtful right-hand take on the melody, he throws in little vamps between lines so you can digest what he's just done - "Did you hear that? Do you get it?" Then he's off on a contrapuntal thing, with reharmonizations. Then he slams into an uptempo Cotton Club rip, and places "The Entertainer"'s very different but complementary melody and rhythm on top - discretely, as if two pianists were doing it. He winds up with a romantic flourish, fanning out the tune's structure like a lace tablecloth.
Roberts has thus squashed key elements of Western music's last 100 years into three minutes and 43 seconds. And made you smile. That's what he's doing on half the record. On the other half, the original compositions, he clues you in to the kind of surprising notions he got from immersing himself in Joplin: the crystalline melancholy of "Hidden Hues," the giddy spin and melodramatic free association of "After the Party Is Over."
In person, Roberts is easy to be around, with his quiet seriousness, the Floridian lilt in his voice, the way he introduces thoughts with "Oh my . . ." He explains his layering of styles and eras: "You've got to have the Ellington understanding, which is that anything that's been done of value is accessible at any moment. Real creativity is in your head first - and your heart, as a belief - and what's required on the physical plane is execution. We just have to step up our expectations of what the standards are."
Roberts' standards of execution are specific. He believes that, for the survival of the music, traditional techniques must be internalized in human minds and hands. But like many of the current generation, even Roberts himself struggled for initiation into, for instance, the sacred mystery of swing.
"I was trying to figure out why I didn't like my playing from, like, age 13 to 22. I asked Dizzy Gillespie, 'Did you ever have any problem learning how to swing?' And he looked at me like I'm crazy. You were not gonna walk on the bandstand anywhere in New York in 1945 if you couldn't swing. Somebody might hit you over the head with something."
Why must today's jazz swing? Well, swing is essential to Roberts' definition of his chosen art form.
"If you're a writer, you know there are eight parts of speech - it's not a question of opinion. Any language has basic rules that dictate how you orient yourself. Fats Waller went directly to James P. Johnson and asked him, 'How do you play stride piano?' and James P. Johnson said, 'Like this.'"
Roberts himself oriented his first solo album with the assistance of Monk saxophonist Charlie Rouse and Coltrane drummer Elvin Jones. "If you're in the studio with Elvin Jones, you won't walk in there thinking that this is a game. You could feel him trying to be spiritually connected with the whole philosophy."
Though his ensembles are full of young musicians, Roberts values the time he's spent with elders such as Joe Henderson, Milt Jackson, Elvin Jones and Hank Jones, Elvin's brother. "I learned more from listening to Hank Jones play the piano in half an hour than in about 30 piano lessons. There's a freedom and a security that you can hear in a musician who has known what they're about."
How do you get that way, though? Many well-versed traditionalists just can't blend their revered influences into a personalized whole, and can't drag the past firmly into the present, the way Roberts can. The man traverses a rare path of assimilation and re-expression, which most of us would call inspiration.
"Every performance that's worth giving is an inspired performance. People know if you're just up there going through the motions."
But to Roberts, inspiration isn't its own reward; he has to rationalize it, emphasize its utility. "This music can enable future generations to re-create the situations that were used to solve cultural problems. How do you maintain optimism when you're destitute? If you hear the celebratory sound of Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller, where does that come from? The fact that people gathered to hear it tells you that there were problems being solved. At this point in history, entertainment has become more of a frivolous exploration, but there was a time when it was fun, but at the same time there were credentials required."
It's an interesting logical transition, from "fun" to "credentials." Roberts seems to consider it undemocratic to emphasize Louis Armstrong's talent, or his own; the suggestion is that Satch simply had the credentials for solving human problems - though his early music was universally damned as frivolous.
And what about that simplest but most unteachable of musical forms, the blues? What kind of credentials did Robert Johnson possess?
"The value of the blues is like the value of water - it's a fundamental that's more precious than the intellect that's used to unleash it, because without the blues sensibility, there is nothing left. But the blues as a language is as simple or as complicated as one's understanding. We can certainly go to the Mississippi Delta, and that's a valid experience, but we can also go to late Ellington."
Or to Marcus Roberts, whose Blues for the New Millennium last year established his ability to make real blues and at the same time add to the tradition a neoclassical approach to harmony. "I put on Stravinsky and I can hear where that's coming from. I love that stuff. This year I've started to study it more seriously, knowing that it will be years of that."
No doubt. Art Tatum and Bud Powell are on Roberts' spotlight agenda - why not Prokofiev and Schoenberg? "I plan to cover all the major pianists. I don't plan to leave any of 'em out."
A project for several lifetimes, that. But Roberts is a highly directed individual. Maybe you wonder if he's got a life aside from music. Before you waste too much time speculating, let me tell you he digs football. Now try to guess the team. New Orleans, for Satchmo? New York, for Monk and Ellington? Kansas City, for Basie? Detroit, for Elvin and Hank Jones? Jacksonville, for his hometown?
No, Marcus Roberts follows the mercurial, unpredictable Oakland Raiders. Must be the commitment to excellence.