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Album Review: Marcus Robert's 'New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1'

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Album Review: Marcus Robert's 'New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1'
Courtesy of J-Master Records
Pianist Marcus Roberts looks to the history of jazz piano for inspiration in his new release New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1 (J-Master Records). On this beautiful album, Roberts performs compositions by the masters of jazz piano responsible for the development of the jazz from its ragtime roots in New Orleans to its arrival in Harlem, where its reaches began to expand exponentially.

The composers whose work Roberts features are Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk. Joplin was one of the creators of ragtime, a gospel-inflected syncopated modification of the march. Morton infused ragtime with blues and improvisation. When he moved to New York in 1928, he brought the music with him. Waller, a renowned stride pianist, was influenced by Morton’s use of the blues. Waller’s teacher, James P. Johnson, was also Ellington’s early influence. Monk, whose unique style straddled stride piano and bebop, marked the point at which the older styles blended with the new, and creative jazz took off in the late 1940s.

New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1 underscores this history, but the album is not merely a tribute. With each of the classic songs that Roberts performs with his trio (consisting of bassist Roland Guerin and drummer Jason Marsalis), the old melodies are played with a fresh approach that is consistent with the piano jazz tradition by blending old and new.

The first track, Jelly Roll Morton’s “New Orleans Blues,” begins steeped in the buoyant sounds of early jazz, with a hint of a backbeat. The trio engages in some polyrhythmic interplay, and the piece eventually morphs into a more modern-sounding blues for two choruses. The bass and drums drop out, and Roberts plays a stride-like passage that transitions into a New Orleans second line feel.

Throughout the album, the trio strikes a balance of traditional styles with colors of modern sounds, mainly manifested in references to other genres and in harmonies used in later jazz styles. At times, Marsalis implies a bomba rhythm (for example, in the introduction to Joplin’s “The Entertainer”), and when Roberts toys with the songs’ harmonic content, he hints at McCoy Tyner’s chord voicings, or draws from contemporary gospel music.

New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1 is a great album for those interested in jazz history, but is just as enjoyable for those who aren’t. Regardless of the historical context, Marcus Robert’s trio plays with a constant sense of excitement, humor, and the blues.

Release Date:

March 31st on J-Master Records

Personnel:

  • Marcus Roberts – Piano
  • Roland Guerin – Bass
  • Jason Marsalis – Drums

Track List:

  1. New Orleans Blues (Jelly Roll Morton)
  2. Jitterbug Waltz (Fats Waller)
  3. The Entertainer (Scott Joplin)
  4. Pie Eyes Blues (Duke Ellington)
  5. Jungle Blues (Jelly Roll Morton)
  6. Black and Tan Fantasy (Duke Ellington)
  7. Ain't Misbehavin (Fats Waller)
  8. Honeysuckle Rose (Jelly Roll Morton)
  9. A Real Slow Drag (Scott Joplin)
  10. In Walked Bud (Thelonious Monk)
  11. Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are (Thelonious Monk)
  12. Searching for the Blues (Marcus Roberts)
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