Jazz pianist Marcus Roberts says he can’t understand how some of today’s jazz players feel they can become innovators by ignoring the works of the great masters. “I think there’s a confused way of looking at individuality in this era because I think that people somehow feel that by segmenting yourself from historical references that that gives you some sort of innovative potential that I don’t feel is really valid,” Roberts, 27, said.
“If you are a composer of classical music, studying the compositions of Beethoven is not going to hurt you,” he added. “It’s only going to enrich the range of compositional possibilities that you have at your personal disposal.”
The same principal applies to jazz, he said. “And to know that Roberts practices what he preaches, you can simply look to his current album, “Alone With Three Giants.”
The release, which has recently reached the top of three major jazz record charts, finds Roberts in a solo setting, performing songs by three giants of traditional jazz piano — Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk.
“It just so happens that I’ve been studying Monk’s music for a long time, Duke Ellington’s music for a pretty good while and most recently Jelly Roll’s music,” he said. “So I guess for my own personal development, you know what I’m saying, I chose those three people.
“I (also) felt there was a logical link between the three of them,” he added. “They all three happened to be piano players and they all three happened to be great composers and very broad conceptual geniuses in terms of music.”
“Alone With Three Giants” is the third album for Roberts, who first came to prominence as a member of jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’ band.
A graduate of Florida State University, Roberts became friends with Marsalis after meeting the trumpeter’s father, Ellis Marsalis, at a 1982 jazz educators’ national convention in Chicago.
Three years later, Roberts replaced Kenny Kirkland in Marsalis’ band and performed on five of his albums before going solo in 1990.
Marsalis’ impact on Roberts’ approach to jazz has been profound.
He described Marsalis as “a brilliant man basically on several levels and a very dedicated artist and a great teacher, and someone who I feel has great passion for a high level of artistic achievement.”
Roberts’ first two albums, “The Truth is Spoken Here” in 1989 and “Deep in the Shed” from 1990, were performed in band contexts. Roberts said he plans to explore different settings for his music in the future.
“I’ll just try to do them one thing at a time, you know, you take a real consistent course and try to stick with it and go from one stage of development to the next,” Roberts said. “That’s the most important thing, which would include, if the goal is to be complete, then of course you have to play in any setting, which again is something each of these people — Duke, Monk, and Jelly Roll — could do. They could play in any setting you put them in — in a trio setting, a quartet setting, a duo setting.
“They were just great organizers of music in a band and had a great concept of the range of the piano in any of those situations,” he added. “So that’s definitely the direction I want to keep heading.”
Alan Sculley is a free-lance writer for Last Word Features.