An old saying claims that the acorn never falls far from the tree. In the world of jazz, that doesn't always hold, but more often than not, it lands at least within shouting distance. Take the case of Marcus Roberts for example. As Wynton Marsalis's pianist of choice for much of the 80's and into the early 90's, Roberts worked extensively with Marsalis until branching out on his own in the mid 90's. From there though, Roberts didn't move very far away, guesting occasionally with Marsalis in performances and recordings. Roberts also followed Marsalis's lead, and took over musical director duties with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra after Marsalis left the post to become the director of the entire jazz program at Lincoln Center. However, while Roberts has worked extensively with Marsalis and shares a love of the "New Orleans" sound, to consider him merely a Marsalis disciple would sell his talent as his own musician far too short. Roberts may very well be one of the most talented pianist of his generation, and his mind boggling ability to master stride playing and difficult blues runs are truly impressive to behold. Yet with all his technical skill, Roberts continues to pursue an ever deepening mastery of touch and nuance, feel and tone for his instrument and jazz music in general.
After a few forays into classical ( Rhapsody In Blue ), standards ( Gershwin For Lovers ), and extended trio improvisation ( Time And Circumstance ), Roberts returns to what I consider his strongest style, the leader of a New Orleanish, blues heavy, mid-sized jazz band. Blues For The New Millennium is a collection of fourteen basic blues pieces that Roberts and his ensemble cast sway, swing, slink, and saunter through. "Cross Road Blues", the immortal Robert Johnson composition begins the album with a low down, backwoodsey feel highlighted by Roberts authoritative swing and Marcus Printup's emotive soloing on trumpet. From this most honored of starting points, the band turns on its heel and launches into a roaring Bourbon Street jam entitled "Jungle Blues", a composition of Jelly Roll Morton. The horns take turns strutting out the melodic lines while Roberts chugs the rhythm section along in perfect time.
One could easily compare this album to a heaping hot bowl of gumbo, with Roberts the master chef, mixing his sidemen and structures like so many ingredients in a bowl. Traditional blues jams are mixed with Blue Interlude ish sounding dialogues and trio inspired romps up and down the keyboard. Through it all, Roberts puts in a pinch there, a sideman here, and continually stirs the pot. Bandleaders are rare commodities in jazz, and bandleaders who are virtuosos on their instrument generally go by one name only (Miles, Dizzy, Trane). Roberts displays excellent judgment in arranging this recording, and looks to be stepping up towards that legacy. Many of the selections here, especially "I'll See You At One", "Whales From The Orient", "Jade", and "Early Rehearsal" are vividly reminiscent of the work of Marsalis's great touring band of the mid 90's. While Marsalis himself has moved toward more Ellingtonesque extended compositions, Roberts seems to have taken on the torch of the work the two were doing and is keepin' on keepin' on. It is therefore no real surprise to find many Marsalites among the sidemen. In fact, the youngest Marsalis brother, Jason appears on drums on half the tracks and tours with Roberts. Must be something in the water round that Marsalis house.
Overall, this album is pleasant ride through Marsalis inspired New Orleans music. Roberts swings hard, and swings long, and the rest of the band is of a like mind. Roberts' skill as a writer and arranger improve constantly, though the shadow of Marsalis still casts long. Roberts' playing though, is as always, his own: virtuositic, fluid, inspired, and passionate. While not terribly original, the music here is played well and excitedly. Highly suggested for fans of the 90's Marsalis sound. Slightly less recommended for everyone else.