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Bela Fleck and The Marcus Roberts Trio: Oakland, CA, August 31, 2012

Ken Vermes By

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Béla Fleck and Marcus Roberts
Yoshi's
Oakland, CA
August 31, 2012

Seeing banjoist Béla Fleck and pianist Marcus Roberts is like a roller coaster ride through new musical places. The two recently gave one of the most exciting shows in Yoshi's history, just in time to celebrate the well-known club's forty year anniversary.

In four decades of Yoshi's, there has rarely, if ever, been anything quite like Fleck's performance with the Marcus Roberts Trio, in support of their first recording together, Across the Imaginary Divide (Rounder, 2012) performance. The banjo has not been significant part of any modern jazz group, and especially not fronting a top flight trio like this. And there has never been someone like Fleck—transforming himself into a full-fledge jazzer, improvising at breakneck speed and inspiring the talented Roberts to push himself into the jazz stratosphere—in a straight-ahead jazz group ever.

After two sets, and two standing ovations, the most obvious question is: Where has Fleck been? His regular group, The Flecktones, at times delivers very catchy and iconic hooks, but playing with Roberts and the pianist's absolutely wailing rhythm section—drummer Jason Marsalis and bassist Rodney Jordan—created something so thrilling to that there may not be anything quite like it again anytime soon.

This band was a showcase for originality, complexity, and collaboration. There were no standards, no attempts at delving into jazz history, or much of the history of the banjo itself, except for one original penned by Fleck in a bluegrass style. Fleck used the special qualities of his instrument in new and surprising ways, weaving his way through the pieces using mostly melodic lines, rather than the rhythmic tricks for which the banjo is better known. What was left was a fascinating trip through pure interaction and imaginative invention, the result of a very creative team effort at the highest possible level.

Roberts has fully emerged as a jazz giant, and if he keeps playing with this level of inspiration and joy, he will soon be known as a powerhouse with few equals. This was a night of the highest art. As the audience bounced out of the lobby, it was clear that this performance would be remembered for a very long time. Fleck demonstrated not only the ability to play with musicians on the highest level, but a spirit of joyous celebration that was beyond all genres. This was a very special night.

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