“You know, it’s really a very hip thing that with these younger people from a whole different generation I can find inspiration to want to continue to play and produce,” says pianist Marcus Roberts, 36, referring to the members of his trio, bassist Roland Guerin and drummer Jason Marsalis, both in their early twenties.
The telepathic chemistry of the trio, which will perform in New Orleans on January 15, 8p.m., at Tulane University’s Dixon Theater, is evident on Roberts’ new record, In Honor of Duke (see Reviews). Contrary to what the title may imply, this is not redundant tribute material, but highly original music that successfully relies on a fundamental, yet new, principal—that all members of the group share equally in shaping the direction of the music. Unlike the traditional jazz trio with the piano as the central focus, Guerin and Marsalis are featured equally and share responsibility for spontaneously shaping the tempo, mood, texture, and overall form of the music. It’s a musical high-wire act, but one that Roberts feels is natural for this group, which has played together for over four years.
“The talent here is spectacular and there’s no reason for them to just be playing behind me all day,” he says. “In the last year in particular, they have grown immensely. And they have shaped their own vocabulary that is far beyond anything I could have shown them. I think that what both these guys are doing is exploring the taste and power that’s available on their instruments. This really gives you an infinite amount of tambours that you can experiment with. That led to my feeling that the trio just would be much more powerful if everyone helped to dictate the direction.”
Of course, the music’s success does have a lot to do with the remarkable skill of Roberts, who was a key member of Wynton Marsalis’ groups in the late eighties and early nineties, and who in this decade has proven himself to be an important leader and recording artist. Roberts possesses an enormous facility and range on the piano, and he easily accesses many different eras and styles of the jazz idiom, as well as blues, Latin, classical, and even gospel, as evidenced by “The Beauty of the Spirit,” a song on the new record which is drawn from his church experiences as a child. But it’s the recent development of Guerin and Marsalis, he says, that has enabled him to reach new heights of expression.
“The music has a freedom and vitality now that comes from us being clear as far as how we like to interact,” he says. “I’m able to focus more on playing without having to worry that they’re not doing something I think should be going on. I can just sit back and benefit from the experience and share the process of creating. And I’ve noticed that (Guerin and Marsalis) have become a lot more serious about learning more of the history of their instruments and incorporating the concepts of a lot of the great figures that we have to deal with. So it becomes much more effective when you want to put together a tune that has, let’s say, New Orleans flavor as well as be-bop flavor, or if you want to sort of superimpose these things on top of each other. That’s the whole essence of my philosophy. I do not believe in a decade of stylization. What I’m interested in is presenting the whole history and to have that freely accessible at all times.”
Indeed, juxtaposition of styles creates many highlights on In Honor of Duke, such as the exhilarating section in “Duke de Suite” where all three musicians play in a polyphonic traditional New Orleans style over a modern swing groove. But true to the spirit of Duke Ellington, there are also plenty of charming melodies, propulsive grooves and dazzling solos to keep the listener engaged, something that Roberts feels shouldn’t be sacrificed.
“You don’t want people necessarily thinking about what your trio concept is. You just want people to feel a groove from it and sense vitality in it and relate to it. If you like it, and it’s a good feeling, you don’t really care what’s in it, you just know it’s good. Audiences in 2000 are no different than audiences in 1599. They want to come and have a good time. When the folks come to our show in January, after a week of worrying about… whatever, we’re gonna swing for them and provide them with an environment of peace and joy and tranquility, and certainly acknowledge the adversity, but certainly not succumb to it.”
The trio’s performance coincides with the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) Conference, which takes place this year in New Orleans, January 12 through 15, at the Hyatt Regency Hotel and the Louisiana Superdome. With over 6,000 educators, musicians, industry representatives and enthusiasts from 35 countries expected to attend, this will be the world’s largest jazz industry gathering.
Not surprisingly, Roberts has strong opinions about this event’s primary focus: jazz education. “The key to improving jazz education is to get back to the roots of what produced the music,” he says. “Improvisation and imagination are the things that are unquestionably part of every great jazz performance, whether it be Sidney Bechet playing in 1925 or John Coltrane stretching out in 1965. The thing that those two gentlemen shared is that they felt very strongly about swinging and playing blues. Now, you’ve got to be able to do those two things, makes no difference what style you want to put that inside of, or what cultural issues or what cultural influences you would like draw from. And now we have about ten thousand records for inspiration. It’s not like a big mystery. You put on A Love Supreme, put on Monk Plays Duke Ellington, it’s there, what the prerequisites are. Whether that’s going to produce a genius or not, who knows?
“The problem I have in terms of education is I don’t see how you’re going to educate someone and not have them learn a Louis Armstrong solo… I don’t think there’s anything wrong with teaching classical music, but the more relevant issue is, assuming that’s being done, how is jazz itself being taught? What concept of blues playing is going to be taught, and how do we define the various levels of achievement that a kid should be walked through? These are things that need to be codified and put into an academic structure.”
The theme of this year’s IAJE Conference is “Celebrating A New Century of Jazz,” looking at the future growth of the music, while recognizing New Orleans’ unique historical ties to its birth. The event features concerts and seminars by more than 150 recognized jazz artists including Joshua Redman, Nicholas Payton, Danilo Perez, Pete Fountain, The Jimmy McGriff/Hank Crawford Quartet, Ramsey Lewis, Nnenna Freelon, David Sanchez, Patricia Barber, Randy Brecker, Joe Lovano, and Billy Childs.
There will also be more than 125 clinics and workshops on a wide variety of subjects such as jazz history, improvisation, technology, composition, arranging and performance techniques. One clinic/panel of note is entitled “New Orleans Modern Jazz Players: Survivors in the Home of Traditional Jazz.” Moderated by Harold Battiste, it will discuss the struggles and ultimate triumphs of young New Orleans modern jazz players in the `40s, `50s and `60s (ie: Ed Blackwell, Ellis Marsalis, Alvin Batiste, James Black) and also comment on selected compositions by these legends. For more information, or to register for the conference, call (785) 776-8744.
Snug Harbor is the official jazz club of the IAJE Conference and will host late night jam sessions throughout. Claudio Roditi plays Jan. 12, University of North Texas One O’Clock Big Band on Jan. 13, Ellis Marsalis on Jan. 14, David Liebman on Jan. 15, and Danilo Perez on Jan. 16.
Of course, there are other great options for live jazz during the conference. Storyville District hosts a STR Records showcase on Jan. 13 at 9:30p.m., featuring artists on their roster including Kim Prevost and Bill Solley, Clarence Johnson III, Joe Krown and Philip Manuel. Legendary trombonist Al Grey is also scheduled to play Storyville during the conference, although the exact date is unconfirmed at press time.
Sweet Lorraine’s, the city’s newest jazz venue, features Clarence Johnson III on Jan. 12, Michael Ray on Jan. 14 and Harry Rios on Jan. 15, with the great vocalist Germaine Bazzle tentatively scheduled for Jan. 13.
Donna’s, a.k.a. “Brass Band Headquarters,” has the Leon Brown Jazz Quintet on Jan. 13, Newbirth Brass Band on Jan. 14 and Michael Foster Project Brass Band on Jan. 15. Locals and anyone fortunate enough to be in town on Jan. 17 should attend the wonderful “Blue Monday” at Donna’s, with Bob and George French, Henry Butler, Todd Duke, Leon Brown, and free BBQ at the break. (Contact Mr. Tabak via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)