Marsalis, Roberts renew musical bonds in impromptu reunion

Two reigning jazz virtuosos were reunited in impromptu fashion Tuesday night, and the results were as profound as they were accessible, as technically brilliant as they were musically direct.

Though the concert at Christ Universal Temple, 119th Street and Ashland Avenue, was to have featured Wynton Marsalis’ new quintet alone, midway during the evening’s second half Marsalis was approached on stage by Charles Sherrell II, owner of WBEE-AM 1570. Sherrell, who sponsored this evening to celebrate his station’s 40th anniversary, whispered into Marsalis’ ear.

Immediately, the trumpeter told the crowd, “The `J Master’ is in the house,” invoking his affectionate nickname for Marcus Roberts, the best pianist ever to have worked in any of Marsalis’ bands. “Bring the `J Master’ up here.”

With those words, Roberts, who’s blind, was walked onstage from a church pew, and the glorious chemistry that is Roberts’ and Marsalis’ alone quickly was reignited. Though Roberts left Marsalis’ Septet years ago to launch a solo career, the mutual admiration and empathy that these two artists share remain unmistakable to anyone who experiences it.

More important, these two musicians, the foremost young players on each of their instruments, inspire each other. Though Marsalis had performed with characteristic lyric grace and poetry throughout this evening, his playing burst forth with an emotional intensity, a tonal splendor and a musical fervor that had not been approached earlier.

Roberts, for his part, offered the kind of jazz pianism that, by definition, remains rare on the concert stage. The coy understatement with which he can play a blues, the seductive changes of tempo and meter with which he reinvents the stride piano vocabulary, the unexpected chord changes he uses to shed new light on classic idioms more than once brought the large crowd to its feet.

Whether playing standard blues or modern originals, whether evoking turn-of-the-century New Orleans or late-in-the-century improvisatory techniques, Marsalis and Roberts communicated with each other, and with their listeners, on the most impassioned terms. Though each now travels the road apart from the other, their musical bonds endure.

As for Marsalis’ quintet, it must be considered a work-in-progress (with pianist Loston Harris, bassist Reuben Rogers, drummer Ali Jackson and alto saxophonist Wessell Anderson, who was a member of Marsalis’ recently disbanded Septet). With the exception of Anderson, none of the members of Marsalis’ new band is yet working on his level.

By Howard Reich
Source: Chicago Tribune

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