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All that jazz: the Marcus Roberts Trio at Notre Dame

Observer Scene | Friday, September 24, 2004

The DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts is starting off with style with performances from some of the preeminent jazz musicians of our time.On Sunday the center kicked off with a performance by jazz great Wynton Marsalis. Less than a week later, it is getting ready for another swinging good time with the Marcus Roberts Trio. The musicians are renowned for elaborating on historical styles of jazz not only with great talent but also with originality and class.Roberts, a pianist and composer from Jacksonville, Fla., grew up with the sound of music from his local church where his mother was a gospel singer. He decided to pursue a career in jazz after hearing a Duke Ellington recording at the age of ten. From there he went on to study at Florida State University. His performances throughout his career have earned him a great deal of recognition, including awards from the National Association of Jazz Educators and the Thelonius Monk International Jazz Competition.Roberts was particularly honored to receive the Helen Keller Award for Personal Achievement in 1998. The artist has been blind since the age of five, seven years before he began formal training on the piano.Drummer Jason Marsalis’ last name is not a coincidence. The artist will take the stage with the trio less than a week after his older brother inaugurated the hall. Marsalis, true to the tradition of his highly musical family, is known as one of the strongest drummers performing today. Bassist Roland Guerin, the last member of the trio, learned to play a variety of stringed instruments growing up in Baton Rouge, La. He is also known for playing a variety of styles with equal versatility, and is one of the few bassists today who plays slap bass technique.The trio is active both in performance and education. The musicians offer clinics and master classes most places they where they perform, spreading their knowledge of jazz and helping younger musicians get started.In preparation for his concert, Roberts gave some comments on his own experience with music, the group’s unique take on jazz and most importantly, on why his music is meant for everyone, not just those who already know about jazz.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I heard you were busy with some workshops this afternoon.Yeah, we had a workshop with some young people. I wasn’t sure exactly how Notre Dame was connected; they set them up with after school tutoring or something. We had a clinic on jazz and explained what we do, and some of the basic principles of the music. It was kind of an introductory presentation. They seemed to like it. They had a huge age range, K-12. So that always good, when you can introduce them to the music. At least they’ll be aware of its existence, that’s the main thing.

Do you usually find you get a good reception from younger college and high school age audiences?Yeah, we have found that to be the case. Some of that has to do with doing these clinics and workshops for a period of time. You get better at explaining the terminology and the musical styles in a way they can understand, and they can relate to it. We try to make it clear that we’re trying to play for the public. They don’t have to be hip enough to get what we’re doing; we have to be hip enough to get what they’re doing. So if we can make the melodies clear, etc., that can transcend the intimidation people feel about jazz.Jason Marsalis is also one of the few drummers I’ve heard who can do these spectacular things with rhythm. He can imitate rhythms from Brazil, and from Cuba, even other Latin countries and mix it with his own background of New Orleans jazz. He knows even quite a bit about African music. He mixes all these things in a cohesive structure. It’s traditional, but still has a freshness to it. When you put that together, it makes it less incumbent upon me to showcase myself all the time, it’s less boring. It makes the trio sound like a much bigger band.I think one of the things about jazz, especially instrumental jazz, is people listen to it and think, what are y’all doing. We just want the people to have a good time, basically, just like anything else you go to.

How would you describe the style you play for students who haven’t heard your music?We spontaneously draw from the entire history of jazz, influenced at times by Jelly Roll Morton, traditional New Orleans jazz, the sound people know, things like Charlie Parker with a bebop sound. One of the biggest things is we don’t see ourselves as representing an era of jazz. Some people cover a specific ten-year period. We cover a lot of things, but the themes are pretty clear. We will develop different rhythms and different melodies throughout a song. If you make it clear enough people will get what you’re doing. Rhythmically speaking, it’s powerful but not hitting you over the head. There’s a groove, it makes you want to tap your foot. We cover the whole history, but you won’t have to think about that. You’ll think, I don’t know what it is, but I like it, you’ll be tapping your foot. When you say jazz, it has kind of an abstract concept. We like to believe it has a clarity and a virtuosity, but not a virtuosity that’s overdone. It’s like if you go a sporting event and you see a great play, you don’t just enjoy it because it’s a great play, it’s the spontaneity and beauty of event. It’s the same with playing jazz, and that spontaneity comes from audience. [It becomes] better than in a rehearsal situation. With a college audience there’s a lot of youthful energy, that’s a good thing.Another thing about Roland [Guerin]. I know a lot of young people if they see a bass they think it’s boring, just goes plink plink plink, but he does a lot more that that. I think they will find it entertaining. He doesn’t just go from jazz grooves. He grew up listening to pop music and other things, and he goes from that too. We all kind of go from all those styles. It is certainly grounded in the continuum of Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, a lot of the cultural figures of the 20th century.

Did you always know this wanted to do?I did, from the time I was probably 11 or 12. Once I heard Duke Ellington the first time I was smitten, you could say.

So you weren’t a kid that had to be told to practice?[laughs] No. It was always an intriguing instrument. I knew early that there was a wealth of information I could never get, and it’s still that way years later. People like to see that you love what you do. It’s important in a performance that they can see you love what you do. What makes something championship caliber is that you’re reaching for something you don’t normally see, and I think music is the same. It can also remind you of something that happened 300 years ago. I shoot for the folk connection. You use all you intellect and culture and performance skill, but at the end of the day what you want to do is move people with it.

What would be your advice to younger aspiring musicians?I would just suggest that they do two things – you pick music that you enjoy, and that inspires you to try to learn, but that you also investigate historical references, in the same way a writer would read Shakespeare or James Joyce or Hemingway. You look at that just to understand how performers in the past handled the problems.

Is there anything you’d want to add about your performance [tonight]?We’ve been paying this program, New Orleans Meets Harlem, a lot, and there have been a lot of changes. It’s starting to become really free. Not to be whatever, but it doesn’t sound old. We’re finding new things to do with what would appear to be a pretty old school program. When we play Jelly Roll Morton it’s not going to be what people think. We might play a style that’s “from the 20s” but we mix a style from the 50s in. If Jason works in some Mexican rhythm, then you have several cultures working together on a piece. If people react well to that, it becomes an inspired thing. So it really is a collaboration between the audience and the players.