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Marcus Roberts & The Modern Jazz Generation at The Flynn Center for The Performing Arts

Doug Collette By

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Marcus Roberts & The Modern Jazz Generation
Flynn Center for the Performing Arts
Burlington, Vermont
October 24, 2014

The last time pianist Marcus Roberts and his trio of bassist Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis inhabited the MainStage of the Flynn Center, it was in the company of visionary banjo master Bela Fleck, and the four of them wasted no time in generating intense improvisation permeated with the joy of seemingly telepathic musicianly communication.

In the company of the nine-man horn section known as the Modern Jazz Generation, Roberts and company flirted with that rarefied atmosphere, but consciously or unconsciously, chose not to inhabit it for lengthy periods of time this late autumn evening. This despite the fact that the evening's performance, devoted to a single piece titled "Romance, Swing and the Blues," divided into a dozen movements in two sets, lent itself at least conceptually to a span of the emotional spectrum.

The dignified but good-humored leader of the ensemble described (perhaps a little too literally) the progression of the extended composition and, in much the same way, the musicianship followed suit, albeit in much more nuanced and evocative fashion. It wasn't until the first interval of the trio alone that it became obvious how the carefully-arranged parts, meant to mesh seamlessly from section to section and soloist to soloist, was but a projection of Roberts, Jordan and Marsalis' interplay.

Would that there might've been more such interludes of the three playing sans charts as a means of expanding the dynamics of music that, as elegantly composed and played as it was, lacked the fire of genuine spontaneity. No doubt the musicians in the MJG enjoy the piece as it progresses, whether they're playing or not, and rightly so: it's a marvelously subtle piece of work that challenges players' innate discipline and practiced skill.

And while it's a fact that such structured compositions, rigorously performed, can conjure the atmosphere that usually emanates from exploratory improvisation, this roughly two-hour piece allows for only the briefest moments for individuals to shine—and trumpeters Tim Blackmon and Alphonso Horne were consistently brightest in that regard—with only those aforementioned trio segments encouraging ensemble jams. And unlike some big band groups comparable to this instrumental alignment, the group never got up a head of steam and blew hard. While not absolutely necessary, a mere modicum of open-ended playing would only serve to highlight the virtues of Roberts' piece as composed and arranged.

If it is true that the corollary to jazz's freedom of expression in the moment is the admirable ambition to write in the classical mode, then Marcus Roberts has certainly made the most of his opportunity with "Romance, Swing and the Blues." Particularly noteworthy were the shifting textures in, for instance, the sensual air of "Evening Caress" as it gave way to the rollicking New Orleans ambiance of "It's A Beautiful Night to Celebrate." If the polite applause that arose so frequently threatened to obscure such transitions, it was merely the means for an enthusiastic full house to express itself in kind with the musicians, and fully connect with a group of players fully bonded on their own terms.

The (almost but not quite) unobtrusive relish demonstrated on stage found its reflection in the pleasure radiated by what appeared to be a capacity audience in this elegant venue, which in turn created that world unto itself that only music at its highest level can conjure.

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