MARCUS ROBERTS INTERVIEWED (1990): Keys and thought in black'n'white

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Marcus Roberts: Spiritual Awakening
MARCUS ROBERTS INTERVIEWED (1990): Keys and thought in black'n'white

Recently a well known jazz writer, Pete Watrous - not known for his exaggeration - acclaimed Marcus Roberts’ new album Deep In The Shed as “the best jazz album for a decade.”

Put that to 26-year-old pianist Roberts and he laughs (for the first and only time in an earnest half-hour conversation) and starts to sound like Elvis at his most awkwardly modest and tongue-tied.

“Wall, suh,” he says in a disarmingly charming Southern voice, "I don’t know 'bout that. I – ah – well, I'm not unhappy that the record has caused people some enjoyment.”

"Best jazz: album for a decade” is probably an overstatement but a forgivable one. Deep In The Shield is an immaculately crafted album which calls on most of Wynton Marsalis’ current band and fulfills - at last, some would say -- the huge claims made by, and about, this new generation of neo-conservative jazz players out of New Orleans.

While Marsalis constantly talks of “trying to deal with the music of Pops (Louis Armstrong) and Duke Ellington" in phrases which Roberts also echoes (“I’m trying to deal with the blues and the music of Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington”) the young blind pianist has delivered on the promise.shed

Deep In The Shed -- which comes in a cover of Roberts in a grand room, hardly the woodshed the title implies -- drops somewhere between the grace of Ellington and the vigour of Monk. It’s a serious record - then again, Roberts is a serious musician.

Take these comments as a fairly typical example of his reply to a question about how outsiders are responding to the growth and development of Marsalis and himself on record.

“It’s very difficult to hear a record of somebody and understand what exactly it is they are trying to do and what other artists they may be checking out. It takes daily contact to know any person, so with Duke Ellington, for example, we have 50 years of recorded music to reflect upon.

“But I have to wonder just how many people really understand his music yet. It’s very difficult to deal with it on any level of complexity because that music is so well thought out and so sophisticated and complicated it is beyond most people’s comprehension - including myself.

“You can‘t make any accurate or definitive statement about that music in any depth.”

Yes. Roberts is a serious character and sees his own music not simply as a form of self-expression but as part of an important reclamation of the jazz tradition which was somehow lost during the past three decades.

“A number of things occurred and certainly the free jazz movement lost touch with an audience. But also the music started being redefined and was taken off the bandstand, commented on and removed from a context.

"Then of course the leaders - John Coltrane, Pops - died and Monk stopped playing. There were no figureheads giving us direction.

“People like myself and Wynton grew up listening to Parliament and Funkadelic but playing those tunes isn’t going to teach you much about playing the piano or the sax or the trumpet.

“You get to meet a lot of pretty girls and so there are those peripheral and attractive elements - but they have nothing to do with the serious pursuit of music.“

That determinedly dedicated pursuit has been articulated frequently (and with monotonous pomposity) by writer Stanley Crouch who has been carrying the banner of the Marsalis school of thinking on album liner notes. And he does it again on Deep In The Shed - specifically placing Roberts at the centre of the neo-conservative jazz renaissance.

Roberts rests comfortably with that but makes clear the technical gifts and knowledge he has acquired are there to be shared not for self-aggrandisement.

“I have no problem with pointing the way and helping others but I also have no problem going to people like (ex-John Coltrane drummer) Elvin Jones and asking him with great humility for advice.

“If you are going to elevate people through your endeavours you have a certain balance between self-confidence and humility."

The idea of elevating his audience - and reaching out beyond it to others - is a subject Roberts returns to frequently.

“First we have to make this music available and try to educate people. They may hear something and want to pursue it so we should keep that musical option open.

“Just because rap has supplanted the blues at this point doesn't mean that generations down the line won’t take these documents (Ellington, Monk, his own recordings) seriously.

“When I play some Monk I'm trying to give people a sample of, not so much Monk himself, but a music which can arrive at that same level of sophistication.

“I can’t say, ‘Don't listen to rap’ but what I want is for any kid of 15 years old in any part of the world to be aware of John Coltrane or people like that and accept his music as a valid alternative so he could get out and purchase a record of it if he chooses. I don’t feel we‘re at that point yet. I want to elevate and perpetuate high idealism throughout every culture."

A half hour conversation with Marcus Roberts is very much like talking to Wynton Marsalis - the same dedication is apparent, the same themes emerge. Both deflect a lot of comment about their own music towards the masters they have been "trying to deal with."

Yet Deep In The Shed is such an individual statement (more so than many Marsalis records where the style can be heavily borrowed) that it seems remarkable he first started playing jazz in public a mere five years ago. He seems to have come twice as far as Marsalis and found his own voice in half the time.

With its broad sweeps and subtle septet arrangements, Deep in The Shade hints at what may be to come -- some kind of suite in the manner of Ellington perhaps?

"Yeah, yeah - that's it," he says enthusiastically. "I’d like a record to be a conceptual statement in itself and I’m moving in that direction now.”

His next album, already recorded, however, is of Monk, Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton tunes, just "trying to deal with them."

The clues are better found in what he is listening to as he takes his own small group on tour - tapes of Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite and Charlie Parker With Strings.

Roberts may, or may not, have made the best album of the past decade with Deep In The Shed - that’s a matter of opinion.

But for only a second effort as leader it is very impressive.

He's serious. Time to take him seriously.

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