Pianist Marcus Roberts has been playing with bassist Roland Guerin and drummer Jason Marsalis (who also plays with Ellis Marsalis) for more than a decade, but it’s been eight years since Roberts’ last recording, Cole After Midnight. Roberts hasn’t been idle during this time—the trio has been performing with symphony orchestras around the world, including a televised broadcast of his Gershwin arrangements with the Berlin Philharmonic. In the current project, New Orleans Meets Harlem Vol. 1, Roberts explores the roots of jazz in New Orleans and how that music relates to its later developments in New York City. In the process, Roberts demonstrates how the compositions of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton anticipated the work of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. He concludes the record with his own piece, “Searching for the Blues,” which is part of a larger work scheduled for release later this year. The brilliance of the Roberts trio’s romp through jazz history is that all of these compositions sound completely contemporary in the context of this recording.
You’ve just released New Orleans Meets Harlem Vol. 1, a very interesting record. Vol. 1 implies that this is the first part of a larger piece.
Yes, this one is concentrating just on pianists. The next one will expand the field to include Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and Sidney Bechet. There’s a lot more.
You seem to be developing the theory that the music of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton flows through these other composers and players from Waller to Ellington to Monk.
That’s what I’ve found from my own exploration of playing this material over the years. You see certain currents. I’ve always been interested in how people influence each other, how they tie together, and most importantly, how we can make that music translate into our own style and to my own individual approach as a pianist. Joplin is certainly an integral presence both from a folk standpoint and also because he wrote it down. It definitely doesn’t sound European, although it’s influenced by that of course. It definitely has this clear American sound. Jazz musicians were able to use a lot of those Joplin compositions for inspiration to create something unique.
You speak in terms of Morton’s swing. The rhythmic change is one of the key things that happens between ragtime and what Morton played.
Jelly Roll had a very powerful and flexible view of rhythm. I think his rhythmic approach introduced the whole concept of syncopation in jazz music. For example, you might have the whole band playing and all of a sudden one instrument is playing. Or the whole notion of call and response, the interplay between the clarinet and the trumpet. I think he was able to elaborate and update the ragtime feeling to create all the basic improvisational tools of jazz.
He was also able to put this in the context of this huge range of a melting pot of musicians in New Orleans, some guys who could read music, some guys who couldn’t. People with all different kinds of training, a very, very eclectic group of people, and he understood what all these people were doing. And he was the first guy who could actually write it down and show it to you. So when he went to St. Louis, the first thing he did is he wrote it all down and he taught them how to play it. He did the same thing when he went to Los Angeles. He’s a real cornerstone of our music.
It’s interesting how you reference “Basin Street Blues” inside of “Jungle Blues.”
That’s true (laughs). I don’t know how that happened. It was just one of those spontaneous things. That was one of the most spontaneous performances on the recording. I think there’s a comfort level that we’ve achieved as a group that allows us to really improvise with true freedom now. We’ve played long enough together that we have a lot of arrangements to work with and we have a lot of different directions we can go in.
Even though you’re from Florida, you’ve played with a lot of New Orleans musicians and you really sound like a New Orleans guy now.
I appreciate that. I am originally from Jacksonville, Florida, but I’ve had the good fortune to play with a lot of very fine Louisiana musicians, and we do reflect in a lot of sense the sound of church or of how some guys might have played jazz as they learned it from their parents.
Why did you choose the concept of New Orleans meets Harlem as opposed to the concept of, say, New Orleans meets Chicago?
I could have done that. That’s not a bad idea. I think it had to do with the fact that the music started in New Orleans and it went to various places in the country, but I think it reached what one could argue was the height of its expansion in New York. The Harlem musicians and writers reflected the apex of all of this coming together in one location. The pianists in particular; the Harlem pianists were more interested in true pianistic virtuosity. So when you look at the history of jazz piano, by the time you get to Fats Waller, Tatum and all those guys, you’re really dealing with a very refined technical approach to the piano, but they still have the spirit and the color, the feeling and modality of blues that you hear in the original jazz players.
The way you’re able to deconstruct these compositions and do different things with the melodies and rearrange them on the spot feels a lot like the way Fats Waller played.
Oh yeah, he was unbelievable. And he had such a beautiful rich sound. How Waller played the piano, I mean, anybody from the classical world who hears that is going to be impressed. Clearly he had fantastic training. He had fantastic rhythm and, again, that down home blues sound, he mixed that all together. I’ve always been interested in doing that, combining different elements like that together in a way that will move people.
You include Ellington in this evolution as well. “Black and Tan Fantasy” is particularly poignant in this context because of its relationship to the New Orleans jazz funeral music, which quotes the same theme.
That’s true. It’s got the quote at the end from the Chopin B flat minor Sonata, from that funeral march, so he actually took it back to Poland, I guess you could say. It’s got all those elements. He worked with a lot of New Orleans musicians, even Sidney Bechet for a brief period, so Ellington himself is a symbol of how New Orleans jazz comes to New York.
It’s an interesting point you’re making because Ellington isn’t usually associated with New Orleans.
Well when you look at Duke, he kind of starts at the beginning of jazz anyway. His first official band was in 1923. Pops hit New York in 1924. If you look at the convergence of all these things, they were taking place in the 1920s. By the time everybody starts expanding and getting into their thing, you may lose sight of the foundation, of the connection that’s there. I only know because I’ve been exploring it for a long time.
To me, the turning point of the record comes on “Honeysuckle Rose” because you deconstruct it once again and then you insert a Monk phrase, suggesting Waller’s composition as a bridge to Monk.
I’m glad you made that point. I’m a firm believer in using more than one style at a time and using the psychology of a style interspersed with another style. There’s no reason why we can’t take the Monk language and put that inside of Waller’s vocabulary or vice versa. In the 21st Century, jazz is going to have to build bigger relationships across the history of the music. We don’t have to stick to a 10-year period of time for our inspiration. You have to be inspired by the entire tradition. When you hear a Mahler symphony, you hear the influence of Beethoven as well as contemporaries like Brahms. You hear the full range of that tradition. We certainly should in our music take advantage of this great history. We don’t have to be restricted by it.
It’s a good point because so much of our contemporary thinking tends to be technologically dominated, so much so that it almost favors the idea of the performance of the transcription or the perfect recreation of the work. I guess part of your argument is that that’s not a living approach.
It’s one approach, which is not to say that it’s bad, but you have to take into account that first of all it’s impossible to recreate it with the exact nuances that inspired the original. We should be able to recreate it if we wanted to, but we should take from what we learned by studying it and recreating it and be inspired by that in a genuine, personal way. We end up with both. Some parts of it may make sense to be played exactly as it’s displayed in transcription, and then other things need to be changed and developed. That’s my belief; that’s what I’ve always intended to do.
There is a whole school of New Orleans jazz so faithful to the recordings they “play the mistakes.”
That’s true. The beauty of jazz is that you can play it any way you want to. It’s not for me to dictate to people which way you should do it.
You obviously have an affinity for Monk’s music.
When I started trying to play those compositions in my early 20s I had trouble playing them, but somewhere it just clicked and I started to see the big approach he had, the connection between intellect and spirit, his profound approach to the sound of the piano. He was a real influence. His compositional style, his tonal style, his improvisational style have all played a huge role in my approach to composing and playing.
You suggest a strong connection going back from Monk through Ellington and Jelly Roll.
I’ve always believed that. Monk, to me, comes right out of Duke Ellington. I think his first record for Riverside was Duke Ellington compositions. He loved Duke Ellington. Monk was able to match this really innocent, child-like sound with a very profound, human sound. There’s a slice of life in his playing. He always said that he was interested in finding as many ways to syncopate as he could. I agree with him. I try to play things on the other side of the beat, play different harmonies, put chords half a step up or below. Even the form itself sometimes is a little off, and that creates a syncopation. And of course his melodies are entrenched with syncopation. Monk is like a modern Jelly Roll Morton. If you were going to pick guys and say here’s what sounds like jazz because it definitely doesn’t sound like anything else, you could definitely pick those two guys and not go wrong.
Is your composition “Searching for the Blues” a kind of summation of this theme?
It is a summation because it’s got the swing element and the sort of bebop nomenclature, but in the slower section there’s that Latin tinge that Jelly Roll always talked about. When I look at that piece, all of those influences are in there. It felt like a good way to end the record.
It says it’s part of a suite of music. Are we going to hear the rest?
Oh yes, this year. It’s been 8 years since I put the last one out, but it won’t be 8 years between this one and the next one, I’ll tell you that. I have a whole bunch of stuff ready to come out. I feel real good about where we are and what we’ve achieved. It feels like a real good time to start putting out more of our music.