Jazz CD Reviews

Marcus Roberts Trio – New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1 – J-Master

The Marcus Roberts Trio offers music with a steady sensibility that has an emotional edge, a sense of fun, and style to match.

Published on May 14, 2009

Marcus Roberts Trio – New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1 – J-Master

Marcus Roberts Trio – New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1 – J-Master, 66:16 ****:

(Marcus Roberts – piano; Roland Guerin – bass; Jason Marsalis – drums)

On his latest historically-inclined jaunt, New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1, pianist Marcus Roberts and his trio consisting of bassist Roland Guerin and drummer Jason Marsalis, take listeners on a tradition-bound journey from New Orleans to Harlem – from the beginnings of bebop to modern times.

As Roberts explains in his liner notes, "We made this recording to show how New Orleans music impacted the music of the later Harlem style and how both impacted all of modern jazz, including our own trio’s group sound." That thesis is eloquently played out on the dozen tracks that travel from pre-jazz ragtime (Scott Joplin), to jazz’s early roots (Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller), and from Harlem’s golden age (Duke Ellington) to jazz’s post war years (Thelonious Monk).

While New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1 emphasizes conventions and the past, the album is not a simple tribute. The familiar melodies are played with a refreshed development while remaining faithful to jazz heritage.

The three musicians set forth with "New Orleans Blues," penned by self-described Father of Jazz Jelly Roll Morton, who was influenced by ragtime but crafted compositions that were accessible to improvisation and rhythmically unfettered. Roberts’s version starts with a short call and response between piano and bass, and then Marsalis’s drums set an easygoing groove. The main melody is performed over a 12-bar blues form, and after brief drum and bass solos, the threesome again settles into a lightly swinging groove. When the bass and drums step out for a bit, Roberts engages in a stride-like section that progresses into a befitting New Orleans second line appetizer, which then acts as a transition to the final part.

That opening gambit is a perfect preamble to stride keyboardist Fats Waller’s  "Jitterbug Waltz," which Roberts, Guerin, and Marsalis render in impressionistic colors, bent a fraction or two askew by a tranquil, slightly unusual pulse that is backdropped by Guerin’s ostinato bass lines and Marsalis’s brush work. The melody curves and turns in a gentle eddy to an affectionate conclusion.

That sense of revamping jazz orthodoxy is brought out even more dynamically on Scott Joplin’s "The Entertainer," which Roberts initially recorded in solo piano form on The Joy of Joplin (Sony Classical, 1998). The trio modification, however, is an unusual contrast to most listeners’ ideas of Joplin, particularly with the addition of bass and drums. Marsalis provides a splendid percussion intro where he improvises on the melody using syncopated rhythms. Guerin then joins in by using a Charleston cadence, which in turn sets up Roberts’s entrance. Roberts wields the principal theme in various, and at times rambunctious, registers, and flirts with the harmonic components, and sometimes hints at avantgarde chord voicings or draws upon current gospel music. Later in the program, Roberts covers an obscure Joplin piece, "A Real Slow Drag," which commences with a passive solo piano approach, but jumps to life when Guerin and Marsalis enter, and the tune transforms into a rolling semi-calypso, marked by Guerin’s two-beat slap bass and an up-tempo Latin accent.

The trio does straight up renditions of two Duke Ellington compositions. "Pie Eye’s Blues" is an undeviating blues that swings from start to finish. While the rarely heard Ellington song is delightful and engaging, it lacks the imagination showcased elsewhere. The interpretation of Ellington’s "Black and Tan Fantasy" is fine but not outstanding. Ellington was skilled at creating contrasting moods and here his organic primary theme is set off by a confidently elegant secondary theme. Marsalis uses his cymbal bell and bass drum to produce syncopation against the piano-based melody, while Guerin distills a Louisiana blues motif. Unfortunately, when the tension is resolved with a breezy groove, all of the absorbing anxiety disappears.

The record ends with two standard but first-class Thelonious Monk tunes and a Roberts original. On the trio’s organization of "In Walked Bud," the head is handled by Guerin, who amazes with his big-toned sound and quick-paced technique. There is no predefined order to solos, since Monk’s music and melodies always sound distinguished on any instrument. Over the years, Roberts’s trio has featured several arrangements of Monk’s "Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-are," which has become one of the ensemble’s favorite concert songs. In this adaptation, the piano intro anticipates a four-bar chord cycle that is restated throughout the piece and also serves as the bedrock for the improvisational parts. Here, Marsalis extensively uses his brushes, his playing so tuneful he could probably carry the whole number on the drums and still keep matters satisfying.

"Searching for the Blues," the concluding track, firmly brings this project into present times. Roberts’s song comes from an original, longer suite, and is broken into four specific sections that highlight different frames of mind. The leading chapter is a nimble 12-bar blues. The second swells to a fiery radiance and then abates to a balmy and contemplative third division tethered by Guiren’s groove, Marsalis’s humid, Caribbean-grounded tempo, and Roberts’s piano, which knits together numerous themes, often executed in octaves. Roberts states that the last section was sparked by John Coltrane’s concept for his classic quartet, which is especially noticeable with its punctual nod to McCoy Tyner.

The package’s written text is also useful and instructive. Roberts fluently outlines the album’s proposition and game plan in his liner notes, clarifying his choices in music, reasons for including certain composers, and the progression from turn of the century material to contemporary works, in a non-academic but intelligent manner. New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1 is a worthy recommendation for anyone interested in the story of jazz. But it is just as likeable for those who aren’t, because The Marcus Roberts Trio offers music with a steady sensibility that has an emotional edge, a sense of fun, and style to match.


1. New Orleans Blues
2. Jitterbug Waltz
3. The Entertainer
4. Pie Eye’s Blues
5. Jungle Blues
6. Black and Tan Fantasy
7. Ain’t Misbehavin’
8. Honeysuckle Rose
9. A Real Slow Drag
10. In Walked Bud
11. Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are
12. Searching for the Blues

— Doug Simpson

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