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Bela Fleck & The Marcus Roberts Trio: Across The Imaginary Divide

Doug Collette By

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Across The Imaginary Divide, the collaboration between banjoist Béla Fleck and The Marcus Roberts Trio, is as adventurous as its title suggests. And the fruit of these four musicians' labor is as seamless as their approach is fearless.

The opening moments of "Some Roads Lead Home" demonstrate that the modesty with which the foursome interacts does not belie their skills. There is no showboating, as Fleck's acoustic instrument gives way to pianist Marcus Roberts' and their fluidity carries over to the rhythm section of drummer Jason Marsalis and bassist Rodney Jordan during "I'm Gonna Tell You This Story One More Time."

Appropriately enough, it is on the title song that Fleck and Roberts' trio reach the first of many breathless passages of improvisation. Crisp exchanges between the two melody instruments lead into a four-way instrumental conversation in which the eloquence of the players impresses individually and collectively. None of the participants relinquish their unique personalities during the course of Across The Imaginary Divide and, while this constitutes a serious endeavor to be sure, the musicianship nevertheless radiates an unmistakable air of good humor that enhances its purpose.

No doubt derived from their first, serendipitous jam back in 2009, Fleck, Roberts, Marsalis and Jordan bring a playful atmosphere to "Let's Go" and "Kalimba" before a noticeable gearshift occurs, the group bearing down to parlay overt declarations of style, in the traditional acoustic jazz fronted by Roberts on "That Old Thing" and the even more clearly defined and equally accessible "That Ragtime Feeling."

These four musicians are, indeed, bonded as a band and often sound larger than just a quartet. Their precision on "Petunia" is just as noticeable on "Topaika," but the intricacy of their interaction on the latter cut is even denser. That said, this music invites repeated listening precisely because it is not impenetrable; the sparkling clarity of sound, as coproduced by Fleck and Roberts, highlights the varying textures within the mix, including the low notes struck by Jordan and the washes of cymbals from Marsalis. The end result is music that is colorful in the most vibrant way.

While none of the dozen tracks on Across The Imaginary Divide extends very long, there is nevertheless a palpable continuity over the course of its one-hour playing time that make it comparable to a well-paced live performance. The spontaneous quality is all the more remarkable, given that it arises from the care given the track sequencing, the crowning touch to a project that offers a diversity of pleasures from start to finish.

Track Listing: Some Roads Lead Home; I'm Gonna Tell You This Story One More Time; Across the Imaginary Divide; Let Me Show You What to Do; Petunia; Topaika; One Blue Truth; Let's Go; Kalimba; The Sunshine and the Moonlight; That Old Thing; That Ragtime Feeling.

Personnel: Béla Fleck: banjo; Marcus Roberts: piano; Rodney Jordan: bass; Jason Marsalis: drums.

Title: Across The Imaginary Divide | Year Released: 2012 | Record Label: Rounder Records

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