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New Orleans meets Harlem

Observer Scene | Sunday, September 26, 2004

You might think a performance featuring Wynton Marsalis’ younger brother and his pianist of six years would sound like a recap of Wynton Marsalis’ performance at the Leighton Concert Hall.This was not the case. The musicians of the Marcus Roberts Trio have their own ideas about what jazz should sound like, and they leave no doubt as to what those ideas are.Friday night, the Trio played with a kind of freedom and spontaneity that is impossible with a group like Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Where every piece performed by the group of 15 musicians has be impeccably rehearsed to bring the music together, the Trio has room to play off the audience’s mood. More importantly, they have the room to listen and respond to the other musicians on stage.The Trio made the excellent but highly traditional set played by the LCJO sound almost tame. The thinner texture of a trio gave pianist Roberts, drummer Jason Marsalis and bassist Roland Guerin each a chance to show their considerable talents.Anyone who came to the concert to hear excellent jazz piano was not disappointed. Roberts, who is famous for his elaborations on standard numbers, was exceptional in every piece. Solo renditions of two pieces, including “Someone to Watch Over Me,” gave the audience a chance to appreciate his solo talent.Jason Marsalis is deservedly renowned as one of the most innovative drummers playing today. He often opts for relatively simple beats despite having masterful control over the most complicated rhythms. He brought the audience to its feet when he finally let loose in his final solo at the end of the concert.Guerin’s performance on bass was the biggest surprise of the show. The musician has mastered a style called slap bass and provided his own percussion for an incredible bass solo.The rapport between the drummer and bassist was another highlight of the show. The two played off each other’s rhythms in a way that only comes with virtuoso musicians who know each other’s style very well.The Trio can undoubtedly play the swing and bebop sounds that casual jazz fans are used to hearing. Their show titled “New Orleans Meets Harlem” put a new twist on the standards by Fats Waller, Thelonious Monk, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and other jazz greats.”If Scott Joplin were here, he’d probably walk out, because this is not what he wrote,” Roberts said before starting into the first standard from the first days of jazz.The piece was certainly not what Joplin wrote, nor did most of the pieces in the concert sound the way their composers originally conceived them. But if it is in the nature of jazz to evolve and to be improvisational, this may still be exactly what the composers featured in the show intended.This was not the concert for someone who wanted the same old jazz they’ve always heard. But judging by the standing ovations after both sets and the encore, no one in the audience minded. And judging by the show Friday night, the musicians of the Marcus Roberts Trio will earn their own place in the evolving history of jazz.