|Marcus Roberts represents the creative mainstream of jazz piano.|
On Friday night, he headed a trio of fellow Southerners — Thaddeus Exposé substituting on bass for regular Rodney Jordan — at Clowes Hall. The program, with a couple of episodic originals nestled among a raft of standards, went down easily with an appreciative audience.
By the time of the encore, a deep-delving slow blues, there was ample evidence that the group rapport, with longtime sideman Jason Marsalis (younger brother of Wynton) on drums, had been forged to communicate clearly to the casual and devoted jazz fan alike.
Roberts has in common with a few eminent blind jazz pianists a silky touch that rivets the attention. He is a persuasive advocate of pianissimo — a relatively rare dynamic level in jazz. (In the small blind-jazz-pianist category, I'm thinking in particular of Art Tatum and George Shearing, though generalizations need to be resisted, considering there is also in this subcategory the pile-driving New Orleans blues/jazz pianist Henry Butler.)
When he applied his ruminative style and that distinctive touch to "Answer Me, My Love" (inspired by the Nat 'King' Cole version of this much-recorded song), a hush fell over the audience. He husbands his keyboard heat carefully, turning it up under the concert finale, "You Are My Sunshine."
He introduced it as a folk song, and indeed the trio played it like an uptempo take on the comfort food of Americana. Roberts' fleet-fingered manner intensified during his solo, with a skittery pattern of staccato chords in the treble taking the breath away.
Otherwise, there were several juicy plums plucked from the nurturing grove of the Great American Songbook, including "Just the Way You Look Tonight," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," and "Oh, Lady, Be Good." On one of them, Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love," Marsalis was featured.
In this solo and others, as well as in his deft accompaniments, Marsalis gave a textbook illustration of the durable New Orleans drumming tradition — those churning parade-ground figures, always resting on the bedrock of march music. Roberts' onetime boss Wynton Marsalis has also long favored percussionists exhibiting those crisp, interlocking patterns, from Herlin Riley through Ali Jackson.
As a composer, Roberts typically shows an affinity for episodic forms, with lots of tempo changes that require pinpoint coordination with his sidemen. The trio showed its adeptness in a tribute to Jelly Roll Morton, "The Spanish Tinge." Like other long-form compositions, the piece displayed Roberts' encyclopedic knowledge of jazz piano. Fortunately, he usually personalizes this knowledge so that the result is more than academic or nostalgic. So it proved Friday night, even in the academic setting of Butler University's venerable showplace.