A day late for the 53rd birthday of the singular pianist Marcus Roberts, I’d like to present a feature piece that I was given an opportunity to write about him for Jazziz in 2014, a lengthy March 2009 interview that initially appeared on Ted Gioia’s now-much missed http://www.jazz.com ‘zine, and a 1999 interview for the Barnes and Noble website when selling CDs was still part of their business model.
Jazziz Article (“Visionary Man”) — Spring 2014:
Wynton Marsalis, who does not suffer fools and has built an empire doing things his way, does not readily accept criticism. But when pianist Marcus Roberts speaks, Marsalis listens.
During a 2005 interview, Marsalis enthusiastically recalled discussions with Roberts during the pianist’s 1985-’91 tenure in several of his bands. “We discussed philosophical questions about music, like whether in jazz the bottom can move like the top,” he told me. “It’s hard to create a groove with melodic motion in the bottom. So what do you do with the bass? We talked about a lot of harmony versus no harmony; atonal music versus tonal music; should we focus more on abstract concepts or on melody? Is abstraction a dead-end street or on the cutting edge?”
Two years after that conversation, in October 2007, Marsalis drove 1,100 miles from New York City to Tallahassee, Florida, to collaborate with Roberts — who teaches at Florida State University — on a range of educational activities, and to play a concert with the pianist and record in the studio with Roberts’ trio, then comprising bassist Roland Guerin and drummer Jason Marsalis, Wynton’s younger brother. Six years after that busy week in the Sunshine State, in November 2013, Roberts simultaneously released separate CDs of the proceedings — Together Again: Live in Concert and Together Again: In the Studio — along with a 2012 studio session titled From Rags to Rhythm, a 12-movement suite performed by his current trio, with Jason Marsalis and bassist Rodney Jordan. All three discs were released on Roberts’ imprint, J-Master Records.
The Together Again albums document the Marsalis-Roberts partnership for the first time since the 1991 performances included in the Wynton Marsalis Septet’s 7-CD box set Live at the Village Vanguard. “We wanted to showcase the natural way we communicate, and we chose music you could play without much rehearsal,” Roberts says, speaking by phone from his Tallahassee home in December. “The playing is spontaneous and comfortable. We both know way more about music than we did when we were making records together. But the way we relate hasn’t changed, as it probably never will.”
The settled, old-master quality contained on the Together Again discs contrasts with the exploratory quality of earlier encounters like ]J-Mood, Live at Blues Alley, Marsalis Standard Time, The Majesty of the Blues, Blue Interlude and the three volumes of Soul Gestures in Southern Blue. Those albums represent Marsalis’ shift from the vertiginous, high-energy rhythmic and harmonic abstractions of his 1983-85 quintet (with Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland and Jeff Watts) to the blues-grounded, groove-oriented, orchestrally sophisticated, “all jazz is modern” conception that, after 1988, would define the Wynton Marsalis Septet and continues to bedrock the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
“We attacked specific problems,” Roberts says of those albums. “When I entered the band, we were playing primarily original music, but our ballads sounded terrible. I identified that to Wynton as something we needed to work on. When we played standards from the ’30s and ’40s, that didn’t sound good. I remember mentioning that we needed to play more blues, but when we played them, it wasn’t that happening either. So the blues pieces on some of those records were us working on putting more human feeling into the music, making it more accessible to lay people.
“Wynton taught me a lot about how to identify the things you work on. With his notoriety and fame, he could easily have continued in our prior vein of music. But for him — and for me — it’s always been a question of dealing with the code of ethics that the music itself imposes.”
Those ethics were already in place in 1980, when Marsalis, then 19, met Roberts, a 17-year-old senior at the Florida School for the Deaf & Blind, at the Jazz Educators Convention in Chicago. As his own career ascended, Marsalis stayed in touch, sent Roberts recordings by Thelonious Monk, brought him to various gigs to hang out and sometimes sit in. After Kirkland and Branford jumped ship to tour with Sting, he offered Roberts a job. Drummer Jeff Watts recalls Roberts’ command of the repertoire on his first gig with the band, in Salt Lake City. “What he played, I’m sure he would like to take back,” Watts says. “But he knew it cold. There was nothing that was going to prevent us from playing anything in our book. I use Marcus as an example to people who make excuses about not having one thing or another together. He is at the top with regards to work ethic.”
Himself no slouch in the hard-work-is-good-for-you department, Marsalis attested to Roberts’ diligence and his refusal to allow his disability to impede creative expression. “Marcus was still developing his playing then,” Marsalis said. “I called him because he had the most intelligence and depth of feeling and integrity — personally, as a man — of any musician I’d encountered around my age. I knew it from speaking to him, and I wanted to be around that kind of feeling. The size of his mind was good for me. I found out how serious and thorough he is about studying and learning and playing. We had long, long pieces, and he’d learn the music by ear before we could learn it by reading.
“From watching Marcus develop, I learned that your artistry is your integrity and who you are as a person. That’s the most important component, not whether you can hear chords quicker or play a more complex polyrhythm than somebody.”
For Roberts, putting in the hours is as much a matter of necessity as an ethical imperative. “Because of my disability, I’m not able to sight-read,” he says. “If I don’t learn the piece inside and out, the likelihood of something going wrong is greater. So from the time I was 12, I didn’t just learn what the piano was playing; I tried to understand the whole structure. I don’t learn music quickly; to this day it takes a long time to absorb it into my system. But when I really know something, I can hear what it should sound like based on what I can bring to it. It’s almost like I can manipulate it as I go along, hearing it in my head as I go, based on how I can use the piano to shape the overall architecture.
“After our first tour, I worked just on comping for two months, six hours a day, before our next set of gigs. I listened to a lot of Duke Ellington and Hank Jones. When we went out, everybody was shocked that I’d advanced so much in that short a time. But the bottom line was that if I was going to be out there doing it, it needed to be right. I was always taught there’s not much point in doing anything halfway. This music is only desirable to people if played at the highest level. Enlightenment comes from above, not below.”
Between 1988 and 2001, Roberts released 14 solo, trio and ensemble albums. Before the arrival of 2012’s Deep in the Shed: A Blues Suite and Across the Imaginary Divide — on which his trio finds common ground with banjo giant Béla Fleck — and the three new albums, Roberts had released only two discs since 2001.
He began his recording career as a leader with The Truth is Spoken Here, an all-star ensemble gathering, which he followed with the first version of Deep in the Shed, a suite of original music with a unit that included Marsalis and other close generational contemporaries. Then came 1991’s Alone With Three Giants, a solo outing on which Roberts found new routes into repertoire by Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington and Monk; 1992’s As Serenity Approaches, which contains solo and duo performances of original pieces and items from the American Songbook and stride-piano canons; and 1993’s If I Could Be With You, another solo recital. Portraits in Blue, from 1995, features Roberts improvising to the piano parts of orchestral works by George Gershwin and James P. Johnson, while on The Joy of Joplin, from 1998, he offers solo renderings of 16 numbers by early-century ragtime poet Scott Joplin.
On these albums, Roberts grapples with the vocabularies of the European canon and the foundational streams of American jazz, addresses the material on its own terms of engagement, interprets it with virtuoso execution and conceptual freshness, pulling a thick, sweet, legato sound from the piano. He advanced his goal of “always expanding while using the whole history of the music all the time” on a pair of late-’90s trio sessions (both released just after the millennium by Columbia, which then dropped him) with Guerin and Jason Marsalis. His statements on the 16 Nat Cole-Cole Porter-associated pieces that comprise Cole After Midnight and the 12 Ellington-inflected originals on In Honor of Duke incorporate elements of Ellington, Monk, James P. Johnson, McCoy Tyner, Kirkland and Danilo Perez.
Roberts contends that From Rags to Rhythm represents the most comprehensive realization of his aesthetic. Composed in 2001 on commission from Chamber Music America, and reworked and refined as the aughts progressed, it’s a 12-movement work with interchangeable themes that reappear in various contexts as the piece transpires. Roberts explains why it, the 2006 session From New Orleans to Harlem (issued in 2009) and 2011’s Celebrating Christmas are his only trio releases of the 21st century.
“I’m sure a lot of folks wondered whether I’d disappeared or wasn’t doing much,” he says. “I recorded a lot of stuff during this time. But I was no longer on a major label, and the industry was changing. Possibilities on the Internet had not matured. So I decided to wait while figuring out methods and strategies to disseminate my work to the public. Also, I was exploring more deeply how classical music and jazz could be presented together, so I needed to invest myself in the piano to prepare for the next big stage of my career. I was overhauling my technique, exploring a more refined approach to sound, expanding the amount of nuance I can play through voicing and pedaling, playing contrapuntally with a certain balance and articulation.
“I was happy with the trio, but didn’t want to record again until we were able to organically improvise that concept with a certain feeling. At this point it’s more a way of life, a philosophy, what we believe in. Whatever we play, it sounds completely different from night to night.”
“Marcus always plays experimentally,” says his 48-year-old bassist Rodney Jordan, who regards Roberts as a kindred spirit to a pair of his own early employers, outcat veterans Kidd Jordan and Alvin Fielder. “To my ears, he’s no different than them in terms of feeling free when you play music.”
Roberts takes the comparison in stride. “What interests me is that, whatever we’re playing, we all communicate and respond to what each person is playing, so that we can freely determine what should come next,” he says. Then he preemptively addresses brickbats thrown at him over the past quarter-century for paying too much attention to older styles and too little to bebop and beyond.
“Most people think I’ve been playing that stuff my whole life,” Roberts says, after observing that he didn’t begin to investigate Jelly Roll Morton’s music until 1988, for a “Classical Jazz” show that Marsalis presented at Lincoln Center. He notes that his formative sensibility gestated not only from playing piano in his mother’s church and accompanying her in their Jacksonville, Florida, home, but also covering ’70s hits by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Natalie Cole. He pinpoints his jazz epiphany to age 12, when a local swing era-oriented radio show exposed him to Duke Ellington, as well as Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson and Mary Lou Williams.
“I’d never heard any chords like what Ellington played on the piano, and the sound interested me,” he says. “The music was from the 1930s or 1940s, but to me it was like new. It was modern. It was the same with Jelly Roll when Wynton got me into him, and I realized how profoundly difficult his stuff really is; it turned my approach and world of piano upside-down. As I got deeply into it, I saw relationships to the church music I grew up hearing. When I hear two styles, what intrigues me is not what makes them different, but where they intersect, how to unite those two sounds into something else.”
One way Roberts individualizes his sound is by utilizing orchestral devices initially borrowed from the Ahmad Jamal Trio. In the course of a single piece, he constantly modulates grooves, tempos and keys, plays separate time signatures with the right hand and the left, and, as he puts it, “flips around the roles of the piano, bass and drums by giving everyone an equal opportunity to develop the concepts and themes, to change the form, to get us where we’re getting ready to go.”
“I’ve always experimented with whatever music came into my environment and tried to figure out how to use it in my own way. ‘New’ is anything of value, anything that’s relevant to helping me do what I want to do right now. There’s no big agenda. The goal is just to play better every day. Your individual identity as a musician is there, just like the identity of the sound of your voice. The question is what vocabulary to use through that voice. That’s what Wynton and I always understood without having to state it. It’s never been about jazz, per se. I don’t consider myself to be a New Orleans pianist or a stride pianist or a bebop pianist or a classical pianist. I study the whole history and try to develop globally that way.”
Title: Leaning Classical
In 2012, Marcus Roberts composed a three-movement piano concerto, titled “Spirit of the Blues: A Piano Concerto in C-Minor,” dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King. He premiered it with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and his trio on April 4, 2013, the 45th anniversary of King’s assassination.
After receiving the commission in 2010, Roberts spent more than a year preparing and contemplating. “I didn’t want it to sound like a jazz guy who is dabbling in classical music,” he says. “I had Rimsky-Korsakov’s Principles of Orchestration and Samuel Adler’s The Study of Orchestration scanned to Braille, and I studied them thoroughly.”
Once the composing began, Roberts used CakeTalking for SONAR, a program developed by Dancing Dots Braille Music Technology. “I established maybe 30 tracks, put an instrument on each track, and played in what I wanted each instrument to do,” he says. “To hear what the flute is doing at measure 32, I press a command, jump to the measure, solo the flute, and hear it exactly. Once I finished each movement, I exported the file into Sibelius, and my copyist and I would prepare it to [conductor] Robert Spano’s requirements. The tempos change constantly, so they had to be communicated clearly. Since I’m a blind guy playing a new piece with an orchestra, we wanted to make sure the transitions from section to section were seamless.”
Roberts modeled each movement after iconic concertos from the classical canon. The first movement, “The Blues,” connects blues chords to motifs refracted from Beethoven’s “Third Concerto in C-Major, Opus 37”; the second movement, “The Dream,” is inspired by the second movement of Ravel’s G-major concerto; the third movement, “Freedom,” whose Latin elements and percussive textures palpably connect it to the jazz continuum, evokes both Bartok’s second piano concerto and the third movement of Prokofiev’s third concerto.
Roberts is proud of more than the notes and tones. “In a weird way, it’s symbolic that I’m representing this struggle to independently compose a piece of this scale that blind musicians have faced for decades,” he says. But he also feels that the work embodies his aim of “continuing to push the envelope in bringing jazz and classical music together.”
“The orchestra authentically plays the classical part, the trio does the authentic version of the jazz,” he says. “Hopefully I’ve written into the composition how the two forms coexist and melded them into one unified entity that represents modern life, which is global.”
Interview with Marcus Roberts for http://www.jazz.com, March 24, 2009:
Jazz criticism over the last two decades has usually ascribed to pianist Marcus Roberts the aesthetics of “conservative neotraditionalism.” 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 cliche.
“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 the time, he had recently presented his nascent, individualistic conception of the piano trio on a songbook homage to Nat Cole and Cole Porter Cole After Midnight and a suite of original music inspired by his muse, Duke Ellington called In Honor Of Duke, augmenting a corpus that included an improvised solo suite on Scott Joplin’s corpus and customized arrangements of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and James P. Johnson’s “Yamacraw.”
“As an example,” Roberts continued, “Ellington was not somebody who was going, ‘Oh, there’s Bebop; let’s throw away the big band and solo all night on ‘Cherokee.’ 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,”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, reflecting on the ways in which Roberts, who replaced the mercurial Kenny Kirkland in Marsalis’ band in 1986, helped 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 can’t 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. What’s inside of you. That’s the most important component, not 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 From New Orleans to Harlem the recording that you’ve been trying to find the right time to put out over the last few years, or is it very recently recorded?
I first recorded it in 2004. I edited it and mixed it and mastered it, and ultimately it just wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be, so I re-recorded it in 2006, and now I’m putting it out. It’s really the second version. I re-did the whole thing. If I’m going to put it out, in my estimation, I need to be happy with it if I’m going to expect anybody else to be happy buying it.
What dissatisfied you about the first incarnation?
I can’t even put my finger on it. I just didn’t feel that it captured where we had evolved to. By the time I’d fixed it and edited it and did all the post-production, we were playing—honestly—so differently that it didn’t 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? It’s not like you disappeared and hid in a cave. You’ve been performing a lot.
It’s been a few things. For one, after leaving Columbia I knew that I didn’t 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 didn’t 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 you’re doing, what you think about your general approach to sound, what new technical principles you’re 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 it’s 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. I’ve 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. It’s hard work if you want to be good at it, and it took a long time. I’m in my fifth year at FSU, and finally I feel I’m 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 articulation—so Bach is perfect. Then, 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 I’m playing something soft. . .well, where is the threshold when I feel I’m 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 you’ve been trying to work on articulation and more of a light, clear touch on the instrument, you’ll play Mozart for that. If you want to deal with color and sonority, well, you can’t 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.
It’s hard to do consequential R&D when you’re on the road a lot, too, isn’t it.
Well, it is a difficult thing to do when you’re on the road. It’s difficult to do when you’re in the middle of presenting music that you’ve 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 predictable—and I just don’t ever want to go there. I’ll stop first. There is no point putting on the stage something that you don’t care enough about to work on. That’s just for me. Whether we want to call it “new” or “old” or “innovative” or whatever else, if you’re not investing in it every day of your life, then you’re not as serious about art as some great artists have been. That’s all I can say.
Back to point two, what did the trio need to accomplish?
I have to say that they’re 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? We’re 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 you’re 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 style—funk music, zydeco, Louisiana playing—and also has a love of Ron Carter’s role in the Miles Davis Quintet, and a real deep connection with Jimmy Garrison from Coltrane’s group—he’s 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 talent, write arrangements that would make it easier for them to exploit nuance. That’s 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 OP’s 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 everybody’s view of a jazz trio is kind of, “Oh yeah, cocktail music” or “it’s kind of cute, it’s 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.
Then 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, they’ll be able to have equal access in bringing us where we’re 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.
You’ve been evolving that concept for some time, haven’t 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. That’s the difference. The conception is always something that we can talk about, but the question is whether you’re going to really push and figure it out, or whether it’s going to be mainly conception.
Looking at the repertoire and the concept of the recording, I can’t help but be reminded of the recording Alone With Three Giantsi, from twenty years ago, on which you interpreted repertoire by three of the composers—Morton, Ellington, and Monk—whom you represent on New Orleans Meets Harlem. Let’s 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 you’re putting any record together, you’re trying to sequence it in a way that shows contrast and the naturalness of the set, so that when people listen they don’t get tired in the process. I’ve 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 they’re hearing. So we start the thing with Jelly Roll; he’s 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 I’ve been playing for years. There’s not really a whole lot of new material. What is new about it is that it’s all trio, and the concepts are organic, because I’ve been playing this stuff for a long time, and I’ve 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 ‘90s…how do you see those now?
I don’t really see them in any particular way. A record just reflects where you are in your development. For example, Gershwin For Lovers was with Wynton’s 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 there’s 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. It’s matured. It’s grown-up. It’s no longer really a concept. At this point it’s more a way of life. It’s how we play, what we believe in.
At what point in your life did the notion of having entire timeline of jazz interface in real time become part of the way you thought? I’m sure it took a while to germinate, and once it begin 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 it’s always been there. Meeting Wynton was more confirmation than introduction. But the thing about Wynton is, he’s 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 don’t know how to make them operational. You’ll get in the middle of it, then: “Oh, I didn’t consider it whole.” “What do we do now?” “I don’t 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 shouldn’t have you doing something that’s physically going to hurt you. So if you play a great piano concerto, or a great piece by Chopin, what’s amazing is how well it lies within the natural reach of the hand. He’s 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: Well, I’ve always been in search of one general sound that I heard in church when I was 8 or 9 or 10 years old. I can’t even explain what that sound is. From time to time, you hear and play things that have an eternal resonance. You’ll play or hear a melody, and you don’t 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. It’s timeless. It’s beyond the scope of our understanding. It’s like a subconscious-unconscious thing. Then, there’s the conscious implementation of a design that you impose on it. That’s more “modern,” new, relevant for our time, relevant for our generation, etcetera. But to me, you need both. I’ve always thought in terms of integration—of 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.” I’ve never had any shortage of creativity or imagination. I’m sure if you talked to Wynton for any length of time, he could say the same thing. It’s 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. It’s a different view of rhythmic syncopation. Monk was a master of syncopation; his music has syncopation built in on multi-levels. There’s the syncopation that occurs between any two notes that are a half-step apart. That’s my real view of blues—the 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 we’re imposing something on it against the ear. The ear’s got into this, and then we’re going to change it this little bit. It could even be dynamic syncopation—your ear has gotten accustomed to something soft, and all of a sudden, BAM, here’s something loud. It could be the syncopation of two instruments playing, and now, all of a sudden, we’ve got a third instrument. It’s 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. They’re 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 Wynton’s 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. That’s that folk element I’m talking about. Like, when you hear Mahalia Jackson sing. That voice—she could have been singing it a thousand years ago. It goes way beyond the generation you’re 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! You’re thinking that it’s 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! They’d say, “Oh, Well, my-my. Somebody can do that again?” So we’ve 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. That’s 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 you’re spanning the first half of the twentieth century in American music—in 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. Monk’s music to me always sounds like poetry or real modern folk music. He’s almost a modern equivalent of Jelly Roll Morton. Monk’s music is strictly jazz. Strictly. You’re not going to confuse it with German music, you’re not going to confuse it with African music, you’re 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, you’d pick a Jelly Roll Morton piece or a Louis Armstrong piece, you’d probably pick a Monk piece, you might pick something from <i>Kind of Blue</i>. I won’t speculate on the final thing. But for sure, you couldn’t go wrong picking a Monk piece. You couldn’t go wrong picking a Jelly Roll piece or a Louis Armstrong piece. You probably couldn’t 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 I’m interested in. For me, it’s always a question of figuring out who has the information that I need to develop my artistry. That’s the selfish component. Now, I’m 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 you’re talking about somebody’s life’s 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 I’m playing “New Orleans Blues,” which is a staple piece that I always will play and always have played. “Ba-Lue Bolivar Blues,” I don’t know how many arrangements of that tune we haven’t thought up in this trio. We’ve played it all kind of different ways. “Honeysuckle Rose” is another one that we’ve played several different ways. The version on this record is not exactly the same version from 2004.
So 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 didn’t 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 melancholy—a 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. It’s an operating system, like Windows XP. You can put anything that you conceptualize inside of that. It doesn’t impose the moves of what it can be, but it does say, “Well, you’d better write it in 32-bit code, or the operating system won’t acknowledge it.” There’s the science of it, and there’s the art of it, the creative element. Again, you’re 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 I’ve heard people who know you mention Kenny Kirkland, whose chair you filled in Wynton’s 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. He’d 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 Hancock’s and Chick Corea’s conception, but again, put in this really modern but delightfully percussive manner—because it still has the theory and this European training behind it.
Danilo is someone who understood another culture’s 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, it’s 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 he’d figured out. It’s just brilliant stuff. It’s well-executed pianistically. I personally hate sloppy piano playing—somebody who doesn’t understand that the sustain pedal is there and what you’re supposed to do with it. He’s 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 doesn’t get in the way of what somebody else is trying to play, even if it’s your conception, your philosophy and your group viewpoint. It’s a hard job. It’s not for the faint-hearted.
You were mentioning earlier that you’ve 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 wasn’t part of the zeitgeist. Any speculations?
Well, I can’t speak for anybody else’s 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 don’t know.
I’m thinking of the time and place in which you grew up.
That’s still so personal. The only thing I can tell you is, somehow or other, you’ve 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. That’s 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 didn’t 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. That’s never enough. You’re not going to find anything great without it.
With your own label, do you plan to document your work more frequently?
Well, I’ve been documenting a lot. That hasn’t been the problem. There are a whole bunch of records still to come out. Oh yes! But I’m just starting to put the stuff out. We certainly won’t be waiting another eight years to put out a record. It will be more like six months.
Primarily trio, or a diverse range of contexts?
It’s diverse. I have a solo piano record that’s already done. I have another trio record of original music that’s done. I’ve got some septet stuff from live shows that I plan to put out—I don’t know if I’m going to go in and redo it. But yes, I’m 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.] We’re doing Gershwin’s Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra. That’s important to me, because that’s the first major symphony orchestra in the United States that we’ve done this work with. I hit it off with Robert Spano; he’s a great conductor over there. So I’m hoping that we can do a lot more work with them. I’m 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, I’m interested in meaningful collaboration. It’s certainly a little more streamlined. I’m not interested necessarily in just the regular play-gigs type of career.
Interview with Marcus Roberts for BarnesandNoble.com, October 22, 1999:
TP: I would like to ask you first of all about a contention that you make several times in the press material, which is that your concept of the interactive trio and of all of the members of the trio being in a position to lead the proceedings at any given time is a new concept. You say “fundamental but new.” Now, I think the trio does it with great skill and imagination. But would you explain to me a little more why it’s a new concept, as opposed to what, let’s say, Ahmad Jamal was doing in the late ’50s and the ’60s?
ROBERTS: Well, first of all, we have to address the fact that new doesn’t necessarily mean better. “New just means that no one has done it.” If we’re talking about Ahmad Jamal, the way his trio was set up, the piano was fully out front, and Ahmad wanted space so that he could manipulate through cues, visual cues…so he could manipulate the direction of the music. What he would do is, if he wanted Israel’s voice to come out more here, he would leave space and point to him as if, you know, “Play”… In other words, he was a very-very hands-on, great trio… I mean, he put together, in my opinion, the best trio I ever heard! [LAUGHS]
TP: Was he very influential on your concept of trio playing?
ROBERTS: Oh my God, yes.
TP: Talk a bit more about the dynamics of that, and talk about your antecedent trio concepts that inflect the way your sound has evolved to this day.
ROBERTS: Well, we’ve been influenced specifically by Ahmad Jamal, and certainly Errol Garner’s playing has had a profound impact on me — that whole Pittsburgh school of piano playing.
TP: What are the characteristics of that Pittsburgh school?
ROBERTS: Well, they believe first and foremost in swinging and grooving, number one. In the case of Errol Garner, we’re talking about somebody who sort of was a transitional figure from the Big Band swing players and sort of the Bebop era. Errol became very popular in the ’50s at a time when everybody was kind of into the Hardbop of Blakey and Miles, but Errol Garner just had such a hard-driving swing. In his left hand he typically used to emulate Freddie Greene’s guitar playing in the Count Basie band, and then in the right hand he would play a lot of times what you might think of as saxophone figures or trumpet figures in a big band. So he organized this within a trio concept, and the power has always been very attractive to me — just the swing and the power of Errol Garner’s playing.
Then sort of the finesse and the imagination of Ahmad Jamal, who again influenced… Most of what Miles Davis got done in the ’50s, he got pretty much directly from Ahmad Jamal, and Ahmad’s concept of expanding the form. So Ahmad would take a tune like “Autumn Leaves” that has a pretty straight-ahead AB kind of form, and he would expand the A-section until he just didn’t have to play on it any more. He’d point and say, “Okay, now we’re going to go to the bridge.” So it was a very-very flexible way of expanding form. Now, he might put a different kind of groove on the bridge. It just brings the whole tune to life, a whole different way. That’s something that I definitely was very taken by and very influenced by, that this was just a brilliant bandleader who knew how to make the piano sound like an orchestra, how he would make a single line played in the highest register of the piano ring, and then you’d hear Israel Crosby playing all kinds of hip stuff underneath; you know, Ahmad’s left hand wouldn’t be in the way or anything with the harmonic direction that Israel might want to go in…
But again, what I think we’re trying to do is introduce a concept that has an agenda that says that there are many times where the piano does not have to be out front, and rather, there are times where you have to relinquish not only a solo space, but an actual direction, an unanticipated direction that you as bandleaders don’t control, to the bass or drums. And this just isn’t done.
TP: In some ways, this is a very Ellingtonian notion, isn’t it. I mean, Ellington always had control, but it was always control based on his knowledge of what the untrammeled imagination of his improvisers would do. It’s like his concept was built around that intimate knowledge of each of his voices. Since the recording is called In Honor Of Duke, and you say it’s not Ellington repertoire but more an impression of Ellington, the idea seems consequential.
ROBERTS: We are certainly building on very, very fundamental aspects of what Ellington did. He wrote music, number one, specifically for the talents of all the men and women that he worked with throughout his career. And I think in his case, you’re talking about somebody who certainly preferred that his orchestra vision not necessarily be expressed from the standpoint of piano alone, but typically from the expanding of other people’s ability to shine. And he gave them tremendous flexibility, but he did tailor-make the music for them that allowed their imagination to come forward. But again, Duke Ellington did typically maintain control at the piano. This is why we have typically a piano introduction, because Duke Ellington was not going to risk the wrong tempo being set — he was not going to risk any of that stuff. So he did permit imagination, but you have to understand, it was definitely from the standpoint of him making sure that the environment was how he wanted it to be for that to happen. And he had very clear visions as far as what the bass and drums were going to be doing in the big band. He wanted that foundational groove there, and not being manipulated too much.
So again, if we’re talking about the bass and the drums, this is the issue that makes this new. The issue is that there hasn’t been a band that I know of where the bass and drums can dictate throughout an evening the direction that the band goes in. I haven’t heard it.
TP: Talk a bit about the cuing system you use to keep the collective spontaneous interaction organized in some sense.
ROBERTS: Well, we can have, for example, one cue that allows for anybody to either speed the tempo up or slow it down, on any tune. We have another cue system where the tempo can be changed above abruptly at any time. Then we have the music itself, which is organized in a way where there are moments where the direction of the music is in the hands of somebody other than myself, again both in terms of tempo… For example, on two separate occasions, that particular tune, every 8 bars in every break after the …(?)…, control shifts, and it’s beyond just taking a break. Typically when you take a break in jazz, you take the break at the tempo of the preceding material. Well, in this case, we don’t feel that you have to do that. The break could be at any tempo. And you can set up a whole different tempo after your break is done for the next person, so you are dictating the tempo that they play at. So that’s just like one small example of it.
So it’s just things like that. And it’s not to say it’s new like there is no relationship to using material or concepts about the form, because that is certainly not where I’m coming from at all. It’s just a matter of trying to identify things that you don’t feel have been done that can perhaps be a contribution.
TP: A quality you share with a lot of the older piano players is a very organic two-handed conception and orchestral conception of the piano within your trio concept. I don’t know if that’s a question or not, but is there anything you care to say about that?
ROBERTS: Well, I agree with that 100 percent. I love to hear the piano explore with the sense that it could be an orchestra, because it certainly has the range to do it, and it has the ability for you to play many voices at one time. So yeah, I think that is one of the things I certainly strive for every time I play the piano.
TP: You make a comment here that as a youngster and someone with a gift for playing the piano, that Ellington was really the person who turned you around when you first heard him, when you were 12 years old.
TP: Who were some of the other pianists you encountered in your formative years, let’s say between that and going to Florida State University?
ROBERTS: Well, Teddy Wilson. Mary Lou Williams. Of course, I was listening to Classical music as well. I mean, I heard Horowitz the first time when I was 13 after one piano lesson. Art Tatum, obviously. And probably McCoy Tyner to a lesser extent.
TP: It differentiates you from a lot of your peer group who weren’t exposed to any of these prewar musicians at all until maybe later, and kind of came up with the orthodox piano lineage that’s taught in universities and academic institutions. It kind of puts you apart from a number of them.
ROBERTS: Well, the only thing that puts me apart from them, honestly, is just philosophy. You have to understand that in jazz music, typically (or more disciplines, I guess), people tend to look a generation back. That’s just what people do. Because they want to take issue with what’s been done, and either change it or agree with it or just totally reject it. So I think that what I’m advocating, and what somebody like Duke Ellington certainly advocated throughout his illustrious 50-year career, is that you should always use the whole history of the music all the time. That was obviously his conception. He was not somebody who was going, “Oh, now there’s Bebop; let’s throw away the big band and solo all night on ‘Cherokee.'” He was saying, well, let’s use the logical elements of Bebop that make sense inside of his ever-expanding conception.
TP: It was an incremental concept.
ROBERTS: Yes. And this is where I think the power of Ellington’s legacy is second to none. Because it’s always expanding based on the whole history. My philosophy is, I don’t consider myself to be a New Orleans pianist, or a stride pianist, or a bebop pianist or any of that. I mean, I study the whole history and try to develop sort of globally that way. For example, I studied Mildred Falls, so I could really understand how you should accompany a Gospel singer. She played behind Mahalia all those years; she must know something about that. So I mean, I studied her playing on about four of Mahalia’s records, so I could know, and correlate what I heard in Mildred Falls that I also heard in McCoy Tyner. What was I hearing in Teddy Wilson that was being passed down to Nat Cole and to Oscar Peterson? These are the things. Or how did Count Basie go from studying directly with Fats Waller and understanding that whole Harlem Stride thing, and then over time developing actually what a lot of people would think was a contradictory way of playing, with all this space.
TP: Actually, what I hear when I listen to you and reference older pianists is a kind of rhythmic affinity for the way Earl Hines phrases and sets off rhythms. It’s the most visceral connection I feel. Which may or may not have anything to do with your reality.
ROBERTS: Well, Earl Hines, man, that’s…again, that’s another… I try, you know. But I think… See, a lot of the young pianists that I talk to, they pick, like, an era that they’re into, or they respond to a particular philosophy that they don’t want to be associated with. You have some kids who maybe they’re just into claiming that they are expanding based on the 20th Century view of the European piano is what they’re doing, or some people make it clear that Bebop is what they’re interested in. Whatever it is. I mean, that’s fine, whatever a person is into. But I just encourage them to get as much information from the reservoir as you can.
TP: Which certainly puts you on a similar track to Wynton Marsalis, and hearing you say that makes it clear to me why the two of you have been so close over the years.
ROBERTS: Well, yeah. But again, like I say, we have a model far greater than Wynton and myself in Duke Ellington. We have a very clear example of somebody… Or Thelonious Monk. We have figures where this is not some newly discovered fact. I think in most disciplines, this is how things work. Now, we aren’t really suggesting that Einstein wasn’t influenced by Copernicus or Newton; we’re not really suggesting that. So to me, it’s kind of basic, kind of fundamental. I think that Wynton, certainly, just based on how he hit the scene and everything… A lot more is made of that really makes sense to me, but maybe that’s just because that was my experience and I was there.
TP: Let’s talk about your trio. You’ve been together four years now?
TP: A few sentences about their individual qualities and the blend you’re able to get.
ROBERTS: Well, I think that first of all if we were to begin with Roland… Roland likes to groove. He comes from a generation where he’s got Parliament-Funkadelic records and Earth Wind & Fire records and all that stuff. He’s a lot like Reginald Veal in that he just loves to groove. Anything that’s got a groove on it, he’s interested. So he actually likes the traditional role of the bass and drums as just laying that groove down. In a strange way, that’s sort of what helped unlock this new way of thinking, to sort of fluctuate between those states in a seamless way. And he has, over time, developed a very-very strong solo vocabulary and has a lot of really nice things that he does, like with slapped bass based on Slam Stewart, and taking that to another level that I haven’t heard. So he brings strength and just a whole lot of soul and grit to the bandstand.
In the case of Jason Marsalis, this is just like a brilliant, genius kid who can hear three or four tempos simultaneously. He’s somebody who has a completely perfect photographic memory. You can tell him to play “a Roy Haynes conception, but I want the touch to sound somewhat like Tony Williams, and then when you come out of it I want you to play like Baby Dodds but in five.” So you can tell him that…
TP: Is that the way you talk to him?
ROBERTS: Oh yes. I can look right over to him and just say, “Baby Dodds,” and he will go immediately into like a modern depiction.
TP: So the image is correlated into a sound for him.
ROBERTS: Yeah. I mean, he’s a genius. I have no idea how it happens, but I can tell you it’s like split second. A lot of it honestly is just there. I mean, from what I understand, he knew the solo to “Giant Steps” when he was 4 years old. I mean, he didn’t go to school and somebody teach it to him. Nobody knows. I mean, he’s somebody who just has an unusual, tremendous amount of natural talent.
But the other thing about him is that he is very dedicated, and in terms of this particular trio he has gotten very interested in taking a very active role in helping to develop it. One of the things that he told me that he’s doing… I asked him. Like I say, I’m not interested in me dictating every step. He’s interested in taking a lot of the drummers who were not trio drummers, like Max Roach and Elvin and Tony, and using their concepts in a trio context. A lot of drummers, if they play trio, they build pretty much from what we consider to be the traditional trio figures — Ed Thigpen, Vernell Fournier, etcetera. What Jason is saying is that he wants to contribute a modern dialogue with the vocabulary of some of the other drummers who are not associated with trio, and put it in that context.
TP: Just as those drummers would do when they found themselves in a trio context. Because Elvin and Tony and Max Roach and Roy Haynes all did play trios, but they weren’t “trio drummers.”
ROBERTS: Well, no. And I mean, they didn’t play trio in the way that Vernell did. They were not known as helping to develop a particular trio conception. But I think what he’s talking about is developing an identity inside of a trio that is based on not just the standard trio figures, but is (?).
TP: Was all this music more or less collectively developed over time? Talk about the process of composing the music for this trio.
ROBERTS: Well, the music for this trio really began with Time and Circumstance. That’s where my philosophy about piano, bass and drums really is put on record the first time.
TP: With another bassist.
ROBERTS: Well, it was recorded with another bassist, but actually I’d worked on a lot of that stuff with Roland. Roland was not on the record, but believe me, he was very instrumental in the development of the music. Then it sort of went there. Time and Circumstance was composed probably over a 5 to 6 month period of time. In Honor of Duke was done in a 2-1/2 month period of time. But the key thing is that it was written specifically for those two improvisers, and that it was written specifically — honestly, from the very beginning — with the concept: How can we bring the bass and drums more up-front? How can we sort of flip-flop these positions, so that the position of the piano is not lost in power, and we’re not just having these sort of generic, traditional ways at times of playing behind bass players, which I hate. It’s like every time a bass player starts to play somebody starts playing on the sock cymbal. There’s nothing wrong with that. But why is that the only way that we can think of to play behind a bass solo? It’s ridiculous. So we try to find different ways to accompany instruments that are typically not out front.
TP: You use a lot of Latin flavors on this record, explicitly and implicitly. There’s specific clave and then that sort of New Orleans inflection which has an inherent Caribbean feel. Have you been exploring Latin rhythms a great deal in recent years?
ROBERTS: A lot of that has to do with having heard Danilo Perez play. I love what he’s doing. We sat down and played, and I explained some things to him about the sort of straight-ahead piano philosophy, and how he can continue to develop his very incredible, hip, innovative Latin was that he takes a lot of the jazz standards and things; and then he shows me a lot of the basics of Latin playing, and explained to me some things that I can do to sort of bring that into what I was already doing. What I figured out is that it’s another huge reservoir of material and conceptual knowledge out there about that. So that’s why you’re hearing that. It’s something I’m feeling very driven to explore.
TP: Is composition a constant process for you? Are you always writing, or project-driven?
ROBERTS: Well, both. I have an arrangement for Trio and Symphony Orchestra of “Porgy and Bess” that I’m almost done with. That’s really consumed a lot of this year, along with the Ellington. I have a solo record that I’m working on for Columbia of all ballads, because I haven’t ever done a record quite like that, solo. I’m always trying to think of different things to do, to sort of do two things. To keep me in touch with the Folk foundation of life, but also to always stretch my imagination, always stretch my mental intellect. Because I think it’s really the combination of both things without losing one or the other that keeps progress in modern thinking kind of moving forward.
TP: In terms of your own pianism, what do you feel you need to work on? I’m assuming you’re never satisfied with what it is you do, but I assume there are certain aspects of what you do that you’re more comfortable with than, let’s say, others — or maybe I’m wrong.
ROBERTS: What I’m working on is trying to get to the point where my playing is, for lack of a better word, beautiful and poignant and clear. Balanced. Playing of Bach and Beethoven sonatas and Chopin. Those are the things that right at the moment I’m interested in doing. I have not had a whole lot of time, but I am very interested in just playing through a lot of those things. Because, see, a lot of the European masters did write specifically for the development of piano. So it’s one of the few instruments that has such a huge history both in Europe and America, you see. It’s a huge history. So to the extent that I can understand as much as I can, that’s what I plan to do. I don’t know how much better I’ll get, but that’s essentially what I’m driving by.
TP: Do you see the European Classical tradition and Jazz as a seamless entity in your mind, or are there separate personalities that come out for you?
ROBERTS: For me it’s seamless in that it’s all put and organized in a context that is jazz-based for me. I’m not interested in playing note-for-note the Beethoven Third with the New York Philharmonic. I have no real desire to do that, because I don’t have the hours and the days that it would take to really authentically represent that repertoire. But I am interested in writing music that will showcase the piano in a jazz context, but being drawn from a lot of European roots and Latin roots and other sort of merging of sensibilities.
I’d like to mention that the music is always ultimately only valuable if there is an audience for it that you can reach. That’s the most important (?) thing of any of it.
TP: And therefore the extent of your educational activities.
ROBERTS: Yes. And not only that. You are being educated. When people spend two hours getting dressed up and showing up to your event, they are just as interested in communicating with you as you are in communicating with them. I think this is where Jazz music has introduced a whole nother element, this interactive element, which I think has had a tremendous impact on how quickly jazz has moved in the past hundred years.