Thursday, October 15, 2009

Marcus Roberts at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday

The Marcus Roberts Trio, led by the gifted Florida-based pianist, will be among the highlights of this year's Clearwater Jazz Holiday. The free-admission festival starts tonight and continues through Sunday.

I've followed Marcus's career for a long time. Way back when, I traveled to Tallahassee to interview him for his first feature in Down Beat magazine. I recently spoke to Marcus about his latest CD, his trio, and how he incorporates jazz tradition in his approach to playing and composing.

To read the story, as published in the St. Petersburg Times, click here.

Or see my extended version of the story below:

Marcus Roberts/Clearwater Jazz Holiday
By Philip Booth

Music festivals come and go, and several have fallen victim to recession-driven cutbacks.

The Clearwater Jazz Holiday, though, celebrates its 30th anniversary this weekend with a lineup largely focused on smooth jazz. Singer Al Jarreau, saxophonist Boney James, trumpeter Chris Botti, and bass virtuoso Brian Bromberg are among the headliners, along with veteran New Orleans funk band the Neville Brothers. All except Jarreau are making encore appearances at the festival.

The event, which annually draws tens of thousands to breezy Coachman Park on the waterfront, has presented genuine jazz legends over the years.

Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, Mose Allison, and big bands led by Count Basie, Buddy Rich and Woody Herman played the Jazz Holiday during the '80s. Stephane Grappelli, Nat Adderley, Arturo Sandoval, T.S. Monk, and Stanley Clarke were among the jazz heavy hitters on the Holiday bill in the '90s. And several major jazzers, including Terence Blanchard, Chick Corea, Branford Marsalis, Tony Bennett, and Herbie Mann, have played the fest during the last decade.

Fans of straight-ahead jazz are marking their calendars for Sunday's performance by the Marcus Roberts Trio. The acclaimed pianist has worked with Wynton Marsalis and released a string of solo albums, including seven albums in as many years for Sony.

Earlier this year, Roberts released New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1 on his own J-Master label. It's a salute to the music of Jelly Roll Morton, Scott Joplin, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk.

The disc, the pianist's first since leaving Sony in 2001, has Roberts joined by longtime trio mates Roland Guerin on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums for a funky version of Joplin's "The Entertainer" and a down-home take on Monk's "Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are," among other tunes. (For Sunday's show, Rodney Jordan will fill in for Guerin.)

Why the long wait between recordings?

"I didn't feel any huge urgency to have something out," Roberts, who has been blind since age four, said from his home in Jacksonville. "I felt that, given the climate and the (recording industry) changes that were taking place, I should wait and let things settle down so that I could start with a more systematized approach to how I want to deliver content to people. I probably have about five or six CDs' worth of stuff that could have been put out. It wasn't because of any lapse in creative work."

The CD, eventually to be followed by a second volume, with Louis Armstrong music added to the mix, reflects Roberts' artistic imperative. His musical philosophy: Respect the tradition, but keep moving forward.

"I feel like one of the definitive characteristics of any great band is that you have original music -- that you contribute to the legacy of the music -- and that you also create a dialogue with the standard literature," he said. "I feel like we play these arrangements in a unique way. Our sound and approach still comes across."

Roberts, an assistant professor of jazz studies at his alma mater, Florida State University, in addition to leading trio projects has recently worked with singer Dianne Reeves. Next year, he and his trio plus saxophonist Wess Anderson, trumpeter Marcus Printup and other horn players will record music originally heard on the pianist's 1989 Deep in the Shed album.

"I'm always interested in the tension that is created when you take something that is 'old' and you find something new to do with it," Roberts said. "I think that is a compelling and very rich thing."

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