The Marcus Roberts Trio At Ronnie Scott’s

Bit of a delay with this, it’s been a hectic week. I find it strange that I haven’t found one other review of this 2 night residency (although I suspect there will be quite a few for the Ambrose Akinmusire gig on the 26th). Maybe Robert’s style is lacking the media ‘buzz’ factor, or I could just be looking in all the wrong places. If it’s the latter and anyone knows of one I’d be interested to read it.

I have to admit it took some effort to haul myself to Ronnie’s last Monday. ‘T was a long ol’ day and the last thing I needed was being plonked amidst a potentially noisy audience drowning out the sweet stage sounds. However I’d pre-paid (Ronnie’s is not cheap, you know?) and in these times of austerity I thought it’d be a crime not to appease my initial motivations.

Ah, but the music. If I was open to being lured by one swinging oasis on a drizzly Monday night then surely the Marcus Roberts Trio at Ronnie’s was the best option in London? The first set was a blend of Cole Porter and Blues, whilst the second was an interpretation of Coltrane’s Crescent Suite in its entirety. I won’t write-up a minute-by-minute replay of the gig (if words could describe the music, what would be the point of the music… yawn) but I will riff on some general highlights and points of interest and there were lots of those.

Overall it was a good gig, a very good gig in fact, but it did lack a certain ‘fire’ to my ears, a driving impetus shall we say. I suspect the second night of his residency would have been the real roof raiser, but there was still plenty to enjoy. What struck me immediately, bearing in mind his Wynton Marsalis disciple tag, was the modernity of his chordal style; a focus on unabashed chormaticism and ‘outside’ flirtations, all executed with subtle fiery warmth. The way his fingers graced the keys, particularly when coaxing lush crunch chords, was an example of pure pianism. Roberts has an entwined physical AND emotive relationship with the piano and as an audience member it’s a joy to behold.

What Is This Thing Called Love? The third number of the evening, was performed along very similar lines to this version (even the spoken “We’d like to feature Jason Marsalis” introduction was the same.) This is obviously not a bad thing musically, but it does give away the type of jazz musician Roberts is. Bill Evans is another pianist who practiced and rehearsed his voicings and song arrangements tirelessly, until they best represented what he wanted to communicate. Monk, with his signature sound, also stuck to his guns. However, specifically on this issue, if I was forced to choose one comparison it would be Evans, strange as it sounds, because both he and Roberts have a perchance for the full pianistic range; from soft, mellow intricacies to the all encompassing rhapsodic (Gershwin in a modern jazz trio? Anyone?!)

Of course not, Roberts’ is far too consumed by the blues for such pidgeon-holing. In fact his overt Monk influences were evident in the first blues of the night, Being Attacked By The Blues (“we all know what that is! You just have to keep fighting back!”) Midway through his solo, brimming with quirky fills and Monk dissonance, Roberts got stuck in the high register, reeling-off lines of melodically indefinable runs. This was an interesting  technique, as it placed emphasis not on pitch or melody but on the feel of constant 8th notes, and their role in the trio’s rhythmic cauldron. Additionally its subdued nature increased the impact of volume, especially once he’d had his fill and a smash of a mid-range cluster ended the solo.

Throughout the 2 hour set Roberts peppered his solos with stride, elevating thematic statements and padding out the lower registers. I’ve discussed the trio’s broad use of register a couple of times now, with intent I hasten to add as there is a great sense of orchestration within the group. Jason Marsalis waited until the 2nd tune of the 2nd set before diving into his bag of tricks and pulling out the mallets, giving the smack of the tom-toms a timpani feel. I find that telling.

Continuing on with Marsalis he does look like a man possessed when in the zone; glazed eyes, rigid back, head uncontrollably nodding. He physically consumes the swing, embodies it, and is unabashed  in demonstrating such passion. His groove on the open snare with brushes still makes my foot-tap thinking about it. On reflection I don’t think he even laid the 1 beat on the kick on Where Or When, but simply smashed the resonating ride every 12 bars whilst laying down those sick cross rhythms.

For my money bassist Rodney Jordan had the solo of the night with his compelling intro to Lonnie’s Lament. Jordan is able to educe a wailing, masculine sigh in the deepest chasm of his instrument, quite an emotive achievement when you think most bass players rely on a higher, more melodic range to evoke melancholy.

Ok, ok. It wasn’t a very good gig, it was a GREAT gig. As a pianist/composer the most striking lesson for me was the importance of sections, or how effective a well structured tune can be in forcing a response from the audience. On numerous occasions the trio switched from a strict pattern feel to a pushing, swinging free-for-all, resulting in vocal exultations from the crowd. Amongst all the complex harmony, melodic interpretations and strict instrumental arrangements I’m reminded of, rather randomly, a Bruce Lee quote; “Simplicity is the key to brilliance.”

#Peace

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About Will Rodway

what you hear, what you read...
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