In conversation with marcus roberts
By Ted Panken
Jazz critics over the last two decades have usually ascribed to pianist Marcus Roberts the aesthetics of "conservative neo-traditionalism." But the truth of the matter is somewhat more complex.
A virtuoso instrumentalist and a walking history of 20th-century piano vocabulary, Roberts is concerned with sustaining a modern dialogue with the eternal verities and transmuting them into present-day argot. Abiding by the motto "fundamental but new," he takes the tropes of jazz and European traditions at face value, and grapples with them on their own terms, without clichť.
"What I'm advocating is always to expand while using the whole history of the music all the time," Roberts said in 1999, articulating a theme that he more fully develops in this interview, conducted a decade hence. At that earlier stage in his career, Roberts had recently applied his nascent, individualistic conception of the piano trio to a suite of original music inspired by his muse, Duke Ellington [In Honor Of Duke], and a songbook homage to Nat Cole and Cole Porter [Cole After Midnight]. Those albums augmented a body of work that included an improvised solo suite on Scott Joplinís corpus, and customized arrangements of Gershwinís "Rhapsody in Blue" and James P. Johnsonís "Yamacraw."
"Ellington was not somebody who was going, ĎOh, there's Bebop; let's throw away the big band and solo all night on 'Cherokee,'" said Roberts. "He was about using the logical elements of bebop that made sense inside of his ever-expanding conception. I don't consider myself to be a New Orleans pianist, or a stride pianist, or a bebop pianist or any of that. I study the whole history and try to develop globally that way."
Now a working unit for 14 years, Roberts and his trio (Roland Guerin, bass; Jason Marsalis, drums) deploy that approach on New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1 [J-Master Records], his first release since 2001. They address repertoire by Joplin, Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, and Thelonious Monk, laying down a pan-American array of grooves, channeling the essence of the old masters without regurgitating a single one of their licks.
"Marcus Roberts was a whole other whole category of musician for me to play with," Wynton Marsalis told me a few years later, reflecting on the ways in which Robertsówho in 1986 replaced the mercurial Kenny Kirkland in Marsalisí bandóhelped trigger a sea change in the way Marsalis viewed his own musical production. "I had never encountered a musician around my age with that level of intelligence and depth of feeling about the music. He gave me a lot of strength. He made me understand you canít make it by yourself. You have to play with people, and his music is about getting together with other people. Marcus made me understand that if a person has a belief, that is their artistry. What Marcus Roberts told me then (and we were both very young men) is the truth: Your artistry is your integrity and who you are as a man. Who you are as a person. What you are about. Whatís inside of you. Thatís the most important componentónot whether you can hear chords quicker than somebody or play a more complex polyrhythm. I learned that from him, and from watching him and his development."
Is New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1 a recording that youíve been trying to find the right time to release over the last few years, or is it very recently recorded?
Well, Iíll tell you what. I first recorded it in 2004. I edited it and mixed it and mastered it, and ultimately it just wasnít quite what I wanted it to be, so I re-recorded it in 2006, and now Iím putting it out. Itís really the second version. I re-did the whole thing. If Iím going to put it out, in my estimation, I need to be happy with it if Iím going to expect anybody else to be happy buying it.
What dissatisfied you about the first incarnation?
I canít even put my finger on it. I just didnít feel that it captured where we had evolved to. By the time Iíd fixed it and edited it and did all the post-production, we were playingóhonestlyóso differently that it didnít feel to me as though we had captured that in the first iteration. The other issue was that the last recording of mine on a major record label, Cole After Midnight, came out in 2001, but it was actually recorded in 1998. In other words, the last anybody heard of my work really dates back 11 years.
What are some of the reasons for that gap? Itís not like you disappeared and hid in a cave. Youíve been performing a lot.
Itís been a few things. For one, after leaving Columbia I knew that I didnít want to sign with another major record label. So I was no longer interested in going in that direction, but at the same time, a lot of possibilities now available on the internet had not matured yet. A lot of changes were still in process, and I wanted to wait and allow us to use these different methods, strategies, and approaches to disseminate our work to the public.
The other reason was that, as happy as I was with my group, we needed to do some work to fill in some conceptual holes that I thought were there, and I didnít want to record anything until I felt those things had been resolved.
The third reason is pianistic. I needed to look at some major things to overhaul my technique, which you really have to do every five or ten years. You need to constantly examine what youíre doing, what you think about your general approach to sound, what new technical principles youíre interested in exploring that might require real time. So I felt I needed to take some time and invest myself in the piano to prepare for the next big stage of my career.
Those were the main reasons, off the top of my head, why itís been so long. One final one is that I took a job, a half-time position at Florida State University, my old school, to teach jazz and help them with my jazz program. Iíve been teaching young people my whole life, since I was a kid. I always liked doing it. You learn a lot when you teach, because you really have to think about what they need, what their talents and gifts are, and find a way to develop them using their skills and abilities, not just your perspective. Itís hard work if you want to be good at it, and it took a long time. Iím in my fifth year at FSU, and finally I feel Iím making a real contribution to the program.
Let me follow up on points two and three. You said the trio needed to bolster some things conceptually and you needed to overhaul your technique. What specific technical and conceptual things were you looking to do?
I was developing a real interest in exploring more deeply how classical music and jazz could be presented together. That meant I needed to invest more time. Conceptually, I was and am interested in exploring a much more refined approach to sound, which meant that I needed to pick up some old repertoire and really investigate it. Bach, for example, which is the foundation of any keyboard technique. I wanted to go back to Bach for my concept of contrapuntal playing, viewing the piano as an instrument that is primarily interested in more than one line at a time, which is one of the big gifts that the piano offers. Another issue is to be able to play these lines with a certain amount of balance and clarity and articulationóso Bach is perfect.
Another issue has to do with balance, being able to work on voicing and pedaling so that you can increase or expand the amount of nuance that you are capable of playing on the piano at any given time. I tried to focus on making sure that, if Iím playing something soft . . .well, where is the threshold when I feel Iím starting to gain control of that nuance, of these soft colors?
You can play a lot of different things when you study classical piano. The literature is clearly laid out, so if you know which things to study, you can cover a lot of territory. For example, if youíve been trying to work on articulation and more of a light, clear touch on the instrument, youíll play Mozart for that. If you want to deal with color and sonority, well, you canít get any better than Debussy and Ravel. If you want somebody who is in a direct line from Bach and Mozart, but a more romantic, sensual attitude, then Chopin is challenging, because you have to be able to play things very light and beautiful, but also play certain passages with tremendous power and virtuosity.
Itís hard to do consequential research and development when youíre on the road a lot, too, isnít it?
Well, it is a difficult thing to do when youíre on the road. Itís difficult to do when youíre in the middle of presenting music that youíve been playing for a while. New information reinvigorates you. Inspiration, in my opinion, is the key to a good imagination. Without inspiration, you just start playing the same old stuff, and your playing becomes, in my opinion, annoying and predictableóand I just donít ever want to go there. Iíll stop first. There is no point putting on the stage something that you donít care enough about to work on. Thatís just for me. Whether we want to call it 'new' or 'old' or 'innovative' or whatever else, if youíre not investing in it every day of your life, then youíre not as serious about art as some great artists have been. Thatís all I can say.
Back to point two, what did the trio need to accomplish?
I have to say that theyíre so talented. Jason Marsalis is capable ... You might sit down with him and be playing just a regular B-flat blues, and say, 'You know what? Weíre going to modulate to A-minor, and when we modulate to A-minor I want you to keep the same form but play it in 7/4 time.' He has perfect pitch, so when you modulate he knows youíre there, plus he can keep track of those two time signatures at the same time. No hesitation. Roland has a different kind of natural ability to use syncopation and grooves on the bass in this more folk type of styleófunk music, zydeco, Louisiana playingóand also has a love of Ron Carterís role in the Miles Davis Quintet, and a real deep connection with Jimmy Garrison from Coltraneís group. Heís figured out a way to put all of that stuff together. The two of them playing together get this sophisticated, more abstract view of groove and time and rhythm.
What I wanted to achieve with them was showcase that talentówrite arrangements that would make it easier for them to exploit nuance. Thatís one component that the public can address and digest comfortably. In the same way that when you go to a very sophisticated restaurant, you may not know the 20 ingredients in this chicken dish, but you know that it tastes good, and you know that there are some subtle reasons why. So I wanted to pay attention to these nuances and go in the direction of some of the other great trios that existed. The Oscar Peterson Trio was fantastic. Their execution was flawless. They had such a huge dynamic range. When Ray Brown would start to take a bass solo, it was a bass reflection of OPís virtuosic piano sound and style. Or Ahmad Jamal, who right now, today, can sit down at a piano and blow you away by himself, with a trio, with his conception, with his accompaniment ...
Frankly, we live in a loud culture, so everybodyís view of a jazz trio is kind of, 'Oh yeah, cocktail music,' or 'itís kind of cute, itís kind of nice ....' Now, if we want the American people, or any other group, to take a jazz trio seriously, we have to work hard to present a group that has the same power, virtuosity, and delicacy that we can find in a quartet, or quintet, or septet.
The second way to do it is by flipping around the roles of the piano and bass and drums. My modern view is that if we make room for the bass and the drum, theyíll be able to have equal access in bringing us where weíre getting ready to go. If Roland wants to change the form or the tempo, how do we set up a cue system so we actually can do that without the piano having to set it up? We had to figure out how to do it, and that changed the way we play.
Youíve been evolving that concept for some time, havenít you? You were talking about this ten years ago.
We talked about it ten years ago as a conception. It became a philosophy when we really started to be able to do it. Thatís the difference. The conception is always something that we can talk about, but the question is whether youíre going to really push and figure it out, or whether itís going to be mainly conception.
Looking at the repertoire and the concept of the recording, I canít help but be reminded of the recording Alone With Three Giants, from twenty years ago, on which you interpreted repertoire by three of the composersóMorton, Ellington, and Monkówhom you represent on New Orleans Meets Harlem. Letís talk about the arc of the repertoire. It seems to represent a fairly chronological timeline from the turn of the century to modernity, beginning with Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin, and concluding with tunes by Monk and your own original piece.
When youíre putting any record together, youíre trying to sequence it in a way that shows contrast and the naturalness of the set, so that when people listen they donít get tired in the process. Iíve even listened back to some of my own records and thought it was a little too intense the whole time. Just general observations.
So you want an ebb-and-flow?
Yes. You want people to have time to digest what theyíre hearing. So we start the thing with Jelly Roll; heís at the beginning anyway, so why not? 'New Orleans Blues' I thought was a good selection to start it off. Also, we kind of used that blues by Jelly Roll to be a sort of microcosm of jazz, because the way we do it, we are able naturally to cover a broad range. From my vantage point, the 21st century in jazz music has to be about presenting or being informed by the entire history of jazz at all times, not restricting oneself to a particular ten-year period. Which may have been how the music was built, brick-by-brick. But at this time in history, we live in a collaborative community, a world community, a global community. Where technology is right now, everything moves at the speed of light, and jazz music is the one music that can keep up with it. It has everything in it. It has virtuosity. It has folk music. It has stuff from the inner city. It has grandeur and sophistication and aristocracy in it. It has democracy in it. It has perhaps even tyranny in it, depending on who the bandleader is. Everything is there.
Most of the pieces on this CD Iíve been playing for years. Thereís not really a whole lot of new material. What is new about it is that itís all trio, and the concepts are organic, because Iíve been playing this stuff for a long time, and Iíve figured out how to rebuild from the ground-up to where it has a specific individual sound. To me, that was an important component.
So your Duke Ellington homage, In Honor of Duke, which was primarily comprised of original compositions, or Cole After Midnight, or Gershwin For Lovers, all trio recordings from the Ď90s ... how do you see those now?
I donít really see them in any particular way. A record just reflects where you are in your development. For example, Gershwin For Lovers was with Wyntonís rhythm section, not my band. That was about slick arrangements, to give a good record to Columbia that I thought they could sell. In Honor of Duke represents the beginning of my original trio conception. When you come up with a concept that you believe is different or new, you often have to use original music to bring it to the forefront, because thereís no music written for the conception yet. So I wrote that music, and also the previous record, Time and Circumstance, to represent the concept, if you will. But New Orleans Meets Harlem represents the philosophy. Itís matured. Itís grown-up. Itís no longer really a concept. At this point itís more a way of life. Itís how we play, what we believe in.
At what point in your life did the notion of having the entire timeline of jazz interface in real time become part of the way you thought? Iím sure it took a while to germinate, and once it began to germinate, it took you a while to find your way towards articulating it. Were you thinking this way before you met Wynton Marsalis?
I guess itís always been there. Meeting Wynton was more confirmation than introduction. But the thing about Wynton is, heís the only one in my generation who could articulate intellectually and with any real clarity what we were doing and why we were doing it, and he was the only one who really knew how to execute and operationalize it. Again, a lot of people have great ideas, but they donít know how to make them operational. Youíll get in the middle of it, then: 'Oh, I didnít consider it whole.' 'What do we do now?' 'I donít know.' So making ideas operational is important, and as I have developed, I have had to work very hard at sniffing out how to streamline some of my concepts, to bring together an operational structure with a conceptual structure.
Those are the real problems artists like to solve. For example, when you write a piano concerto, it needs to be playable. I mean, it might be difficult, but it shouldnít have you doing something thatís physically going to hurt you. So if you play a great piano concerto, or a great piece by Chopin, whatís amazing is how well it lies within the natural reach of the hand. Heís got all these problems with thirds and octaves and chromaticism and these kinds of elements, but he also has the solution right there. You just have to practice it!
As far as when I started to think in terms of the history Ö Well, Iíve always been in search of one general sound that I heard in church when I was 8 or 9 or 10 years old. I canít even explain what that sound is. From time to time, you hear and play things that have an eternal resonance. Youíll play or hear a melody, and you donít know when it could have been written. It could have been ten thousand years ago. Somebody might have hummed that way in Africa someplace, or in Japan, or in Europe. Itís timeless. Itís beyond the scope of our understanding. Itís like a subconscious/unconscious thing. Then, thereís the conscious implementation of a design that you impose on it thatís more 'modern,' new, relevant for our time, relevant for our generation, etcetera. But to me, you need both. Iíve always thought in terms of integrationóof more than one thing. That takes you into the realm of multiplication as opposed to addition. I mean, it becomes easy to play something 'new.' Iíve never had any shortage of creativity or imagination. Iím sure if you talked to Wynton for any length of time, he could say the same thing. Itís never been a problem actually to find new things to do.
One thing you do that Wynton likes to discuss when he talks about you, which he says is new and is pretty distinct unto you, is your ability to play different time signatures with two hands.
That came as a result of playing with Jeff Watts. Itís a different view of rhythmic syncopation. Monk was a master of syncopation; his music has syncopation built in on multi-levels. Thereís the syncopation that occurs between any two notes that are a half-step apart. Thatís my real view of bluesóthe tension that is established harmonically between two chords that are a half-step apart, two notes that can be a half-step apart, between a rhythm that could occur on-beat and another rhythm that could occur on the end of one. Syncopation means weíre imposing something on it against the ear. The earís got into this, and then weíre going to change it this little bit. It could even be dynamic syncopationóyour ear has gotten accustomed to something soft, and all of a sudden, BAM, hereís something loud. It could be the syncopation of two instruments playing, and now, all of a sudden, weíve got a third instrument. Itís a real complicated thing.
When you get to rhythm, once you have the general understanding of where the quarter note pulse is, and a tempo that is carrying that pulse, then the only issue is to determine on how many levels can we interject this quarter note pulse. Tain was able to calculate and understand the real math behind these permutations. To be honest, I never really understood it the way he and Jason Marsalis do. Theyíre on a whole different planet as far as understanding the rhythms you can play at these various tempos against other things. So that was a big part of Wyntonís philosophy, and my philosophy with my group. I was interested in adding blues to that concept, so that always, whatever the tempo or concept, it has the real feeling of jazz. Thatís that folk element Iím talking about.
Like, when you hear Mahalia Jackson sing. That voiceóshe could have been singing it a thousand years ago. It goes way beyond the generation youíre in. As I said earlier, you want to get beyond reducing anything to a ten-year period, which is kind of what a 'generation' is. When you hear a Bach chorale, are you really thinking about 1720? No! Youíre thinking that itís moving you right now. 'Wow, this is beautiful. How did somebody write that?' If somebody could write a Bach chorale right now, trust me, nobody would be mad! Theyíd say, 'Oh, Well, my-my. Somebody can do that again?' So weíve got to be real careful in terms of how we evaluate critically the value of something based on the time period that it took place in. Thatís a delicate issue.
New Orleans Meets Harlem begins in 1905, with 'New Orleans Blues,' and ends in 1956 with 'Ba-lue Bolivar Blues Are.' So youíre spanning the first half of the twentieth century in American musicóin Black American music. Do you have any remarks on the broader implications of this body of work?
Again, they solved problems. 'Ba-lue Bolivar Blues,' or any great blues that Monk wrote, has layers of syncopation that we can look at. Monkís music to me always sounds like poetry or real modern folk music. Heís almost a modern equivalent of Jelly Roll Morton. Monkís music is strictly jazz. Strictly. Youíre not going to confuse it with German music, youíre not going to confuse it with African music, youíre not going to confuse it with anything. American jazz. Period. If somebody said, 'Give us four pieces of music that sound 100 percent like jazz,' well, youíd pick a Jelly Roll Morton piece or a Louis Armstrong piece, youíd probably pick a Monk piece, you might pick something from Kind of Blue. I wonít speculate on the final thing. But for sure, you couldnít go wrong picking a Monk piece. You couldnít go wrong picking a Jelly Roll piece or a Louis Armstrong piece. You probably couldnít go wrong picking a Duke Ellington piece. Why? Because that music has such expansiveness.
Monk, Jelly Roll, Fats Waller, Joplin, and Ellington: all were serious about the piano and serious about exploring different forms, different types of nuance, which is what Iím interested in. For me, itís always a question of figuring out who has the information that I need to develop my artistry. Thatís the selfish component. Now, Iím not necessarily going back to Jelly Roll Morton to be caught up in recreating what he did. First of all, it would be very arrogant to pretend you could do that anyway. Because youíre talking about somebodyís lifeís work, what they really went through. And again, these recordings are just a snapshot of part of a day of your life.
And Jelly Roll Morton had quite a life.
Man, quite a life. So I think the more relevant issue is what part of Jelly Roll Morton is also part of me and what I believe. So Iím playing 'New Orleans Blues,' which is a staple piece that I always will play and always have played. 'Ba-Lue Bolivar Blues,' I donít know how many arrangements of that tune we havenít thought up in this trio. Weíve played it all kind of different ways. 'Honeysuckle Rose' is another one that weíve played several different ways. The version on this record is not exactly the same version from 2004.
I think the importance of all the great composer-pianists, first of all, is that they reflect a range of understanding of the piano. Scott Joplin wrote down his music. He knew what he wanted people to play. Of course, he didnít really want folks improvising on it, but we do it anyway. But he was a serious scholar of the piano. His music, again, has this urban sound, but also this melancholyóa kind of aristocratic Folk sound. It also has this connection between pre-jazz and the classical music of Chopin. In other words, it has variety built into it. It has options built into it. Itís an operating system, like Windows XP. You can put anything that you conceptualize inside of that. It doesnít impose the moves of what it can be, but it does say, 'Well, youíd better write it in 32-bit code, or the operating system wonít acknowledge it.' Thereís the science of it, and thereís the art of it, the creative element. Again, youíre always balancing the design with the conception.
Who are some of your contemporary piano influences? By 'contemporary,' I mean roughly within your generation. Ten years ago, you mentioned to me Danilo Perez, and Iíve heard people who know you mention Kenny Kirkland, whose chair you filled in Wyntonís group. Are there other people within striking distance of your birthday who have influenced you?
Those probably would be the two. Kenny Kirkland, first of all, just his knowledge of rhythm, his knowledge of harmony, and how he could intersect the two using not just Latin influences, but also chordal structures taken from the music of Bartok and Hindemith. He was a modern thinker. A lot of stuff Kenny was playing was way more profound than the structure that he played in. He understood theory on an extremely high level. Heíd play a chord that had a rhythmic function to hook up with Jeff Watts and a harmonic function to hook up with Wynton or Branford, whoever was soloing at the time. He also, frankly, was typically the most serious person on the stage. Kenny Kirkland was one of the most consistent pianists that you could hear. I mean, tune after tune after tune, he was swinging, playing an unbelievable modern vocabulary, a great sense of Herbie Hancockís and Chick Coreaís conception, but again, put in this really modern but delightfully percussive manneróbecause it still has the theory and this European training behind it.
Danilo is someone who understood another cultureís view of our music, and was able again to interface them very organically. He could sit down with you and explain how he did it. Again, itís that concept of making something operational. Any programmer, before they start writing code for a computer program, first has to understand the function of the process. Once we know the manual procedure, then we can automate it. Danilo understood manually each of these styles, then he figured out where they intersected, and then he picked music to showcase what heíd figured out. Itís just brilliant stuff. Itís well-executed pianistically. I personally hate sloppy piano playingósomebody who doesnít understand that the sustain pedal is there and what youíre supposed to do with it. Heís a refined player. He understands the vocabulary of these Latin cultures, where he can get away with superimposing it, where he should leave it alone. Also, he inspires the musicians he plays with, which is another job of a pianist. You have to provide an inspirational environment for the bass player and the drummer to do their thing. You have to know when to lay low and stroll so that the piano doesnít get in the way of what somebody else is trying to play, even if itís your conception, your philosophy and your group viewpoint. Itís a hard job. Itís not for the faint-hearted.
You were mentioning earlier that youíve been looking your whole life for a sound that you heard as a kid in church. One development in jazz since you and Wynton got together has been a burgeoning of black musicians with church backgrounds and southern roots. This coincides with a period when MTV and hip-hop were rising in visibility and influence, and jazz wasnít part of the zeitgeist. Any speculations?
Well, I canít speak for anybody elseís experience. I can only tell you that this was the source of my upbringing and what led me into the piano, led me into jazz music, and that sound spoke to me. Now, did it speak to me differently than it spoke to Charles Mingus from Los Angeles, California? Probably not. I donít know.
Iím thinking of the time and place in which you grew up.
Thatís still so personal. The only thing I can tell you is, somehow or other, youíve got to access two conflicting things. One is the value of something that is bigger than you, older than you, greater than you; the other is the physical organization that is from your generation. Thatís the issue. If you grew up in church, then you found access to it that way. If your parents were jazz musicians, like Jason and Wynton and Branford ... Look, they didnít play in church. Obviously, the church is not the only way to find it. I think the main key for any jazz artist, any serious artist of any style, is you must find a connection with the beginning of it somehow. Somehow. It is never going to be enough for it to come just from your generation. Thatís never enough. Youíre not going to find anything great without it.
With your own label, do you plan to document your work more frequently?
Well, Iíve been documenting a lot. That hasnít been the problem. There are a whole bunch of records still to come out. Oh yes! But Iím just starting to put the stuff out. We certainly wonít be waiting another eight years to put out a record. It will be more like six months.
Primarily trio, or diverse contexts?
Itís diverse. I have a solo piano record thatís already done. I have another trio record of original music thatís done. Iíve got some septet stuff from live shows that I plan to put outóI donít know if Iím going to go in and redo it. But yes, Iím always trying to deal with a diversified viewpoint.
Any special projects for the spring and summer?
The most important concerts that I have coming up are with the Atlanta Symphony. [These occurred on April 4th-6th.] Weíre doing Gershwinís Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra. Thatís important to me, because thatís the first major symphony orchestra in the United States that weíve done this work with. I hit it off with Robert Spano; heís a great conductor over there. So Iím hoping that we can do a lot more work with them. Iím talking to him about possibly trying to do the same sort of thing with the Ravel Left Hand Concerto that I did with the Concerto in F. For me, that would be a huge undertaking, and it would take a tremendous amount of time and effort to pull off. But we are discussing it. At this stage of my career, Iím interested in meaningful collaboration. Itís certainly a little more streamlined. Iím not interested necessarily in just the regular play-gigs type of career.
Ted Panken interviewed Marcus Roberts on March 24, 2009.