Portraits in Blue (Sony Classical)
Marcus Roberts

By Bob Bahr

Talk about exploring one's roots. Pianist Marcus Roberts looked beyond Herbie Hancock and his kith, past Thelonius Monk and the bebop players, even beyond Louis Armstrong and the birth of swing to examine the early jazz of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and James P. Johnson's purported response to "Rhapsody," "Yamekraw." He found there two compositions with scores and structures rigid enough to employ a jazz orchestra and open enough to allow Roberts to improvise and update the music. Hailed as one of the most innovative treatments of "Rhapsody in Blue," a landmark of American music, Roberts' interpretation is no quaint period piece. The playing is sharp as a razor and engaging, and the piece's inherent surprises are fresh again.

In the liner notes, Roberts said he "wanted to create a modern dialogue with the entire history of American jazz piano," and true to his word, the New Orleans native evokes the spirit of Monk, Jelly Roll Morton, and a host of other jazz legends in his improvisations. Roberts skitters around the famous themes of "Rhapsody" with a scholarly, yet buoyant, persona.

Yamekraw" isn't as well known, but it blends classical music and jazz in a similar way in honoring the idiom of blues and Negro folk music. More than "Rhapsody," it reflects the feel of the blues and plunders the personal history of the composer; Johnson pioneered the stride piano style and wrote "The Charleston," and both elements are prominent in "Yamekraw."

To close the disc, Roberts recorded over 12 minutes of improvisations based on Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" changes, the most used and abused chord changes in jazz music. When Roberts says "variations," he doesn't mean subtle ones. The melody gets smoothed out in a Nelson Riddle-type string treatment at one point, then roars through a thoroughly modern version of the tune, and ends it with some hot variations with Latin rhythms and tight hits from the orchestra.

This song alone could serve as a primer for beginning jazz pianists. Learn how Roberts works "Rhythm" changes, and you can slide through half the jam sessions in the city.