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Marcus Roberts: Portraits in Blue

Marc Davis By

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This has to be the most raucous, the most bluesy, the most improvisational "Rhapsody in Blue" ever recorded. And not all of the best improvisation is by Marcus Roberts. Wailing clarinets and wandering trumpets abound. And it is all in a spirit of the original, so much so that I believe jazz-loving George Gershwin would have approved.

All of Gershwin's original music is there, but much of it is taken at unusual tempos—speeded up, slowed down or synchopated—with many additional minutes of improvisation that actually fit with the original. I'm usually a traditionalist, so I wasn't sure I really wanted to hear a 28-minute "Rhapsody in Blue," figuring it probably had a lot of filler. It doesn't. This is music that's interesting and worth hearing.

Oh yes, there are also two additional pieces, which are very, very good.

The 20-minute James P. Johnson piece, "Yamekraw," is NOT stride piano, which threw me for a loop. But it IS a sort of answer to Gershwin's "Rhapsody." Written just three years after the Gershwin original, it is also a multi-themed bluesy mini-symphony. An historic curiosity, for sure, but also musically adventurous.

Finally, Roberts plays a 12-minute version of Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm Variations," which are catchy and inventive. But Rhapsody is what you're buying here, and it may be the best one I've ever heard. Certainly the bluest.

Track Listing: Rhapsody in Blue; Yamekraw; I Got Rhythm Variations

Personnel: Marcus Roberts, piano

Title: Portraits in Blue | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Columbia Records

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