June 20, 2024


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Jazz pianist Marcus Roberts’ focus on traditional styles: Video

07.08. – Happy Birthday !!! In 2014, Marcus Roberts was honored to have his life and work featured on a segment of the celebrated CBS News television show 60 Minutes. The show, entitled “The Virtuoso”, traced Roberts’ life to date from his early roots in Jacksonville and at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind to his remarkable career as a modern jazz musician. Roberts is perhaps best known for the development of an entirely new approach to jazz trio performance.

Roberts grew up in Jacksonville, Florida where his mother’s gospel singing and the music of the local church left a lasting impact on his own musical style. After losing his sight at age five, he began teaching himself to play piano; he had his first formal lesson at age 12. Roberts later went on to study classical piano at Florida State University with Leonidas Lipovetsky. Among the many competitions that Roberts has won and awards that he has received over the years, the one that is most personally meaningful to him is the Helen Keller Award for Personal Achievement.

Roberts toured with Wynton Marsalis starting at age 21 for six years, when he left to tour and record with his own band. Roberts’ critically-acclaimed legacy of recorded music reflects his tremendous versatility as an artist; his recordings include solo piano, duets, and trio arrangements of jazz standards as well as original suites of music, large ensemble works, and symphony orchestra recordings (beginning with Portraits in Blue, Sony Classical, 1996). He premiered his ground-breaking arrangement of Gershwin’s Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra with the New Japan Philharmonic and then recorded it with the Berlin Philharmonic (DVD: A Gershwin Night, EuroArts 2003). Roberts’ release of New Orleans Meets Harlem, Volume 1 in 2009 was the first on his new label, J-Master Records. Since then, he has released a very popular holiday recording, Celebrating Christmas, a nonet recording of an original suite, Deep in the Shed: A Blues Suite (Nov 2012), a collaborative CD of the Marcus Roberts Trio with Béla Fleck called Across the Imaginary Divide (Rounder Records), and in 2013, three critically acclaimed CDs—From Rags to Rhythm, Together Again: Live in Concert, and Together Again: In the Studio. In 2014, Roberts released another suite of all-original music, called Romance, Swing, and the Blues.

Roberts is an accomplished composer who has received numerous commissioning awards, including ones from Jazz at Lincoln Center, Chamber Music America, and ASCAP among others. Most recently, he was commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Savannah Music Festival to write his first piano concerto—Spirit of the Blues: Piano Concerto in C-Minor. The concerto was premiered with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Robert Spano in 2013. Roberts first performed as a soloist with symphony orchestra in 1992 with Maestra Marin Alsop. Since that time, he has performed with orchestras all over the world, but most frequently with his long-time friend and mentor, Maestro Seiji Ozawa. Roberts returned to Japan in September of 2014 to share the stage with Ozawa with the world-renowned Saito Kinen Festival Orchestra.

Finally, Roberts has long been dedicated to the training and development of younger musicians. He serves as Associate Artistic Director for the Savannah Music Festival as well as the Director of the annual “Swing Central” high school band competition and educational programs for students from all over the country. He is on the faculty at the School of Music at Florida State University. In May 2014, Roberts many contributions to the field of music were acknowledged through the awarding of an honorary Doctor of Music degree from The Juilliard School. All of this hard work and experience came together in 2012 with the founding of a completely new band—The Modern Jazz Generation, who released their first CD in October of 2014. This multigenerational band was founded on the principles of mentoring in jazz and has 12 accomplished musicians, ranging in age from their early 20s to their 50s. With each year that passes, you can count on Marcus Roberts tackling something new.

Jazz pianist Marcus Roberts’ focus on traditional styles and his willingness to speak sometimes disdainfully of music of more contemporary vintage has not been well accepted in some circles, and for a time he began to engender the type of attacks more often reserved for Wynton Marsalis and others regarded as reactionaries by some members of the jazz press. But Roberts must be credited with going his own way; unlike many of today’s jazz pianists, he has little if any ties to McCoy Tyner, Ahmad Jamal, or Bill Evans. He has some Thelonious Monk influence, especially in his phrasing, but Roberts’ models have predominantly been Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller. While his earliest work reflected pronounced gospel and blues ties, mixed with bebop, Roberts later devoted himself to stride and ragtime, a tactical decision wide open to intense scrutiny and second-guessing.

Alone with Three GiantsRoberts studied piano at Florida State University after beginning on the instrument in his youth. He won several competitions in the mid-’80s, then joined Wynton Marsalis’ band as his first regular pianist after Kenny Kirkland. Roberts emerged as the Marsalis band’s second prime soloist, and the hub of its rhythm section. His swing kept the group focused, and prevented Marsalis’ music from getting too stiff or introspective. Roberts’ own late-’80s and ’90s albums for RCA/Novus, particularly the 1990 release Alone with Three Giants, detailed his commitment to classic music. He continued to explore the past even upon the arrival of the 21st century, with such albums as 2001’s Cole After Midnight (a Marcus Roberts Trio concept album featuring interpretations of Nat King Cole and Cole Porter) and 2009’s New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1 (another trio date, this time focusing on the music of Duke Ellington and Scott Joplin as well as Monk, Morton, and Waller), his first album as a leader in eight years. The holiday-themed Celebrating Christmas followed in 2011. While he has received considerable acclaim for his interpretive skills with historic material, whether Marcus Roberts should be considered a dedicated preservationist or unrepentant nostalgia buff still remains open to debate.

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