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Marcus Roberts: The Truth is Spoken Here


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It was a music where I felt that the premise--the very existence of it--had more to do with attitude than anything else.
Wynton Marsalis is one of the most talented trumpet players on the scene today. Unfortunately, he's also one of the most egotistical musicians out there. As an unofficial "spokesman for jazz," Wynton has helped to promote jazz throughout the world, but he's personally done very little to innovate the art form. This is unfortunate because jazz is all about transformation and change.

Perhaps his greatest contribution to the music is his support of young and upcoming musicians like Marcus Roberts.

Through his work as pianist for the Wynton Marsalis group from 1985 through 1991, Roberts gained a name for himself within neo-traditional jazz circles.

Since 1991, he has continued to carve himself a place in the annals of jazz, releasing more than 12 records as leader and many others as a sideman. His most recent effort, In Honor Of Duke (Columbia, 1999), is not your typical tribute record. Instead, Roberts and his trio (Roland Guerin on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums) punch out 12 original compositions "written in the creative spirit of Duke Ellington," without succumbing to sappy, sentimental references to Duke. The result closely holds to the vision of Ellington. .

I recently spoke with Marcus Roberts about his career, his influences, and his likes and dislikes.

All About Jazz: I know that Ron Westray is one musician who considers you his mentor. Who do you consider as yours?

Marcus Roberts: I don't know. Probably Wynton, because that's the only band I've really worked in besides my own. Other mentors would be Monk, Jelly Roll Morton, and Duke Ellington.

AAJ: I find it very interesting that your new CD, In Honor Of Duke, does not contain any covers of Ellington tunes. Why did you choose original songs?

MR: As you know, last year (because of the centennial celebration of Duke's birth) everyone seemed to be covering Duke compositions and doing tributes. And in terms of this particular band, what I'm interested in doing is to attempt to show influence by example—to draw from the concepts that Duke laid out. Concepts of writing music that allows musicians like Jason Marsalis and Roland Guerin to express their musical personalities on the bandstand. In developing this particular trio, it made more sense to write and conceptualize like Duke, the way Duke would for his group.

AAJ: One of your best records, in my opinion, is The Truth Is Spoken Here (Novus, 1989). Tell me a little about recording with Thelonious Monk sideman Charlie Rouse and former Coltrane Quartet drummer Elvin Jones?

MR: It was an honor. They've participated and made music with the eternal legendary figures from jazz history. I learned a lot from them both. I truly respect Elvin Jones because he approached my music with the same seriousness and dedication that he had in the classic Coltrane quartet.

AAJ: I read that you grew up in Jacksonville, Florida. Do you remember hearing live jazz in Florida growing up?

MR: No. Only records or music on the radio.

AAJ: What about during your college years in Tallahassee?

MR: There was nothing going on in Florida. Nothing that I considered good.

AAJ: So your exposure to jazz was chiefly through records?

MR: Yeah, I couldn't go out and see Monk play or go out and hear Billie Holiday sing. So I tried to gain a sense of the vocabulary and study the nuances through recordings. Specifically, the music of Thelonious Monk, Ahmad Jamal, and John Coltrane.

AAJ: You've cited Coltrane as a major influence on your music. What do you hear in his music that makes it so powerful?

MR: First of all you hear how he took certain ideas and concepts that he obviously got from Monk, and out of that information, he developed them in his quartet.

AAJ: You're talking about the classic quartet with McCoy Tyner?

MR: Yeah. Specifically with that group, he discovered a marriage between the cerebral and the spirit. It was wonderful how he took abstract harmonics and molded them into pure melodies that could be a thousand years old.

AAJ: What do you think about the later period Coltrane music?

MR: Well, most of the Coltrane I have studied goes up to A Love Supreme and Transition.

AAJ: Do you think that in later Coltrane the "marriage" (as you referred to it) shifted or changed?

MR: I really think it did. Me personally, I don't care how abstract something is, as long as it is still grounded in swing.

AAJ: What do you think about adventurous music that swings, like the first couple of Cecil Taylor records?

MR: Well, it's alright. I don't think it's —you know—Monk. I don't have any probleems with any of it, but I think that we just have to be a little careful in terms of how we define things. You know, "adventurous" in my mind could refer to the way Bud Powell was playing in Charlie Parker's day. No one was playing like that before that. I just think we have to be very careful with what we really mean when we use the term adventurous. It's typically a literary term, descriptive of prose.

AAJ: So how do you see total improvisation?

MR: Well, when I play, I'm thinking specifically about this chord progression as opposed to that chord progression. I'm thinking very specifically about the form of the piece. And so, if you ask me about Cecil Taylor or anyone else, you have to understand that I'm coming from a different approach.

AAJ: Roland Kirk once said that "Sound, to me, is like eyesight." Going all the way back to Blind Tom Wiggins, some of the world's great musicians have been blind. How do you think sight affects music?

MR: Blindness is something that is definitely more of a hindrance than an asset. To me, music is oral whether you have vision or don't—it's a hell of a talent. I think it is more of a challenge to figure out how to play music than anything celebratory. That's my sense.

You can't go out in public and whine about it. You're certainly not going to see Ray Charles do it. But believe me, if you ask Ray about it, he is certainly going to tell you that there were real challenges that may not have been there, had he had vision. We can certainly assume that had Ray Charles had sight and the same talent, he may have been even greater.

But you don't want to make it out that your struggle is so unique. Everybody has issues, dysfunctions, struggles, all that stuff. I think what is important to remember is that most people can choose to expose it or choose not to. With blindness, you cannot choose. You walk down the street with a cane. You are visible to the world but the world is invisible to you. And so, in that sense, it's a very harsh reality. You can transcend it, if you are a certain type of individual.

That's the whole reason for me getting into jazz. It was a music where I felt that the premise—the very existence of it—had more to do with attitude than anything else. The idea that adversity can be turned around, full circle, and that playing the blues is how you heal the blues.

AAJ: True enough. So what kind of material can we expect from the trio at this year?

MR: We'll definitely play some tunes off of the new CD. We've got another new CD called Cole After Midnight that's coming out someday soon. And remember, we are playing two nights, so we'll get the chance to play a variety of things. We also have some music from a solo Joplin record that we've arranged for the trio.

AAJ: Can we expect Wycliff [Gordon] or Ron [Westray] to sit with the trio?

MR: Yeah, certainly. And the way Ron plays is certainly an asset. That would be great. I'm very proud of Ron with the work he has done and the type of vision he has exhibited in this southern community. Wanting to get the music out to the people and trying to convince the public that the music is not above them, it's about them.

Originally published in the South Carolina Free Times (2001)

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