High-end jazz, sadly, was in short supply at last weekend's Clearwater Jazz Holiday, the 30th edition of the festival.
An exception: Sunday's performance by the Marcus Roberts Trio. The pianist, joined by regular drummer Jason Marsalis and, on bass, Rodney Jordan (subbing for Roland Guerin) emphasized American Songbook repertoire.
Roberts' approach, also demonstrated on his recently released New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1 (J-Master), was stately and studied but rootsy and eminently swinging, characterized by a willingness to dig between the cracks of the rhythms, and an ability to pull new textures out of familiar material.
He employed those fruitful musical strategies on nearly every piece, beginning with Jerome Kern's "The Way You Look Tonight." The set also included Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies," Johnny Green's "(You Came to Me From) Out of Nowhere" and several Cole Porter tunes: "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," "Anything Goes," and a syncopation-spiked "What is This Thing Called Love."
Tadd Dameron's "Lady Bird" was a swinging delight, and Roberts slipped into stride figures during his extended solo on Jelly Roll Morton's "New Orleans Blues."
Marsalis, an underappreciated New Orleans-based drummer overshadowed by the work of his older brothers, was featured on "Balue Bolivar Balues." Using brushes, he drove the chunky funk and, midway through, pulled and stretch the rhythmic tension to nearly the breaking point.
Charles Mingus's "Haitian Fight Song" offered solo space to Jordan, Roberts' fellow colleague on the FSU jazz faculty. The bassist opened the piece unaccompanied, and aptly applied grinding, bluesy lines to the entire tune. During Roberts' solo, he tossed in a reference to George Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So."
Roberts' next recording will be a return trip to the music heard on his Deep in the Shed album, released 20 years ago, as he told me during an interview for the St. Petersburg Times.
Meanwhile, those inspired by Sunday's set might want to check out his latest CD, with Roberts, Guerin and Marsalis giving new life to a set of jazz and vintage pop gems, including two of the tunes -- "New Orleans Blues" and "Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are" -- played in Clearwater.