I had never seen a band for an entire week before. If you ever get the chance, do it. I now feel like I really know the state of Marcus’ playing. Everybody has been in that situation where your friend saw a band and didn’t dig it, even though you absolutely loved it. When you get to talking about it, sometimes it happens that your friend is saying the absolute opposite of what you thought of the band. If you think they swung, the friend says they didn’t, etc. Then you both have to see the band again to see if they either had an off night or a special one.
When you see someone for a whole week, however, there’s nothing left to chance. The trio had great nights and they had run-of-the-mill nights. Of course with that band, run-of-the-mill is great, but you get a sense of the possibilities the band presents, along with which tunes are hard, challenges they had, what their sweet spot is, etc.
It was an interesting thing for me, because although I have been a fan of Marcus since I started playing piano, I hadn’t seen him live in almost five years, and haven’t bought a recent record of his. Watching him, I recognized some things and was surprised by others. Since the most recent playing of his that I really know, which is about 1999 or so, his harmony has sweetened a bit. A lot more fifths in his voicings(the note, not the interval), a lot more wearing the blues on his sleeve, this new calling card ninth embellishment thing, more triadic stuff coming out of Jelly Roll Morton and church. However, the old standbys are still there: an incredible control of dynamics, tone, and the piano in general, a tricky sense of harmony, with a million different ways of shifting the harmony around, a killer left hand, and of course, the best ears in the business.
Now a lot of people instantly dismiss this music because of it not being modern. For my money, let me first say that most “modern” music is based harmonically on 1920s classical music, or 1960s jazz. Rhythmically, the most “modern” music is based on Indian Rhythmic cycles that have been around forever. The most popular grooves this day come from either Hip Hop and R&B grooves that have been around for thirty years or more, or 1950-60s swing. Modernity (which is a foolish concept for music like this anyway) is relative.
Not to sound like a Marsalis camp fanboy, now. I disagree with my share of that factions beliefs, such as the blanket ousting of AACM, Cecil Taylor, and other such things(Although it turns out that a lot of these beliefs are not as strongly held as you might think. More on that in part 3). However, no matter how you look at it, there is music less modern(in the commonly used sense) than Marcus’ out there all over the place. Any 1990-esque allegations that their standards have been played before and that they , that they need to forget the old rhythms and start searching for new things is either deaf or stubborn.
Marcus’ music was extremely complex, with tunes that had forms with 20 or more sections, complex polyrhythms, multiple tempos going on at once, odd meters, odd barred sections, and complex metric modulation. I could name a hundred modern bands in the current public lens that aren’t doing things as complex as that. It’s been twenty years since people took torches and pitchforks to Wynton and his crew for focusing too much on the history. I think it’s time to let that particular argument die.
Another thing that got me was that no one in the band used sheet music. I’m not against sheet music in the slightest, it was just a profound contrast to see no sheet music on the stage. Marcus doesn’t use it of course, but that wouldn’t stop me if I was in his band. They probably had a running repertoire of 40 tunes, I’d guess. Extremely complex. The Bad Plus doesn’t use music, and Branford’s band doesn’t use music, but most other bands I can think of do. Certainly most live music that you see in NYC does.
Part of that repertoire, they only played once. On the last night, they played all of Crescent, in order. Talking to Marcus afterwards, he mentioned that his main reason for doing so was twofold: he has a deep-seated love of the record, and he wants to try to deal with the tunes as if he were a saxophone player, something that he is using the tunes to figure out.
They played the music wonderfully. There are times when people play a tune or two in the style of someone else, and it comes off as a nice gesture, or contrarily, an annoyance. There’s also situations where people will do a tribute and just play bad head arrangements of complex compositions(usually either Monk or Ellington), or arrangements off the page without the correct feeling behind it(Mingus or Blakey). This however, was a band coming from a school that has consistently preached this era of Coltrane for fifteen-plus years.
They killed it. Jason, who I’ve never heard do an intentional impression, did an unbelievable Elvin. Not vocabulary, per se, just borrowing his beat. Marcus stayed true to his vocabulary as well, although there were about 16 bars in the middle of Lonnie’s Lament where he did some of the most focused, deep and powerful Mcoy-isms I’ve ever heard. By all means he is the direct descendant of that school; Kenny Kirkland was the person who took McCoy and Chick to the next level, and I don’t know who one could argue for as the descendant of Kenny if not Marcus. If you don’t agree, I urge you to go listen to Standard Time Vol 1. and Blues alley again. McCoy is one of the people who everyone steals from, but no one delves into. The things you hear are by and large easy to copy. Marcus however, has been into McCoy’s language and back.
I’m not saying that someone playing a Trane album is the way Jazz needs to be headed, but I appreciated seeing someone who really understands the music pay an unfettered homage to it.
So after the week was done, there was one thing I was sure of: Marcus Roberts is in the upper upper S-Class of forty-somethings playing Jazz piano today. The control of his instrument mixed with his musicality is something that can’t be beat. I don’t even love his musical decisions and influencesof late, necessarily, but there is nothing I can do but respect him. He’s a monster with his own conception and his own voice. I don’t know what else we can ask.
Speaking of respect, an interesting aspect of that crowd of musicians. When glowing with respect for someone, that crowd’s choice phrase is “he knows a lot of music”. Not he can play a lot of music, but he knows a lot of music. There may be a deep meaning there, or it could be nothing. I’ve heard both Wynton and Branford say that they don’t care about anything in their bands except “can you play?”
“I’ve had nice cats and assholes in my bands. The thing is, I’ll take the heavy asshole over the competent nice guy every time” —Branford Marsalis