MJG at Chicago Symphony Center

June 14th, 2014


Marcus Roberts swings the Modern Jazz Generation

by Howard Reich

8:14 a.m. CDT, June 12, 2014

Jazz musicians are not often profiled on TV’s “60 Minutes,” but the long-running news magazine earlier this year aimed its high-profile lens at one of the best: pianist Marcus Roberts.

The piece, reported by another eminent jazz musician – trumpeter and CBS News cultural correspondent Wynton Marsalis – gave Roberts a degree of popular culture visibility almost unheard of among jazz artists these days. Moreover, it shed light on the man’s keyboard prowess, vast knowledge of piano history and remarkable triumphs over the blindness he incurred at age 5.

In April of 2013, for instance, Roberts played the world premiere of “Spirit of the Blues: Piano Concerto in C Minor,” a massive, three-movement work he penned for himself and his trio, sharing the stage with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. No musical form or challenge seems to be too great for Roberts to address, and he’ll take on another one Friday night in Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center.

Sharing a double-bill with trumpeter Jon Faddis, Roberts will lead what he calls the Modern Jazz Generation, a large ensemble featuring veterans like himself and emerging artists, as well.

“We’ve got three generations represented,” says Roberts who, at 50, considers himself one of the elders of the group – alongside bassist Rodney Jordan.

Drummer Jason Marsalis (Wynton’s brother) and tenor saxophonist Stephen Riley form the middle generation, and “I’ve got four or five of them who are in that young generation, and that’s really the reason that I put the band together in the first place,” explains Roberts.

“I remember being a young guy just wanting to play, and Wynton gave me my first opportunity way back then,” in 1985, when Roberts joined Marsalis’ quartet. Roberts left Marsalis’ employ in 1990 to start his own ensembles.

“These young people, they want to play,” continues Roberts. “There’s not enough gigs for them, there’s not enough opportunity for them. So I’ve got to provide opportunities for them to develop and grow.”

Modern Jazz Generation does that, enabling young musicians not only to work with veterans such as Roberts, Jordan and Jason Marsalis but also to gain the coveted experience of playing major venues such as Symphony Center. In effect, during the past three decades Roberts has matured from young lion to jazz mentor, nurturing an art form that must advocate for itself in a pop culture generally attuned to less-sophisticated fare.

But the concert dates represent just one facet of Roberts’ work with the Modern Jazz Generation. Last August, Roberts took the musicians into the recording studio to document his revised version of “Romance, Swing and the Blues,” an epic worked he premiered in New York under the auspices of Jazz at Lincoln Center in 1993. I attended that performance and was struck by the complexity of the material, the craft with which Roberts developed it and the musical depth of his pianism throughout. The audience apparently had a similar reaction, listeners coming to their feet fully half an hour before the piece ended.

Roberts must have had a great deal of confidence to entrust the young players of Modern Jazz Generation with this major opus, which he plans to release as an album later this year.

“We worked like animals on that music,” says Roberts, with a laugh. “I’m not exaggerating: They were working on that music literally day and night for months. They’d get together on their own and write out practice sessions – how they were going to work on it. It moved me and impressed me with their work ethic.

“One of the problems we have in jazz now (is that ) we’ve got all these different players – this camp and that camp. And these young musicians who, when I first started teaching them, they were all caught up in that stuff too. They barely wanted to work together, barely wanted to talk to each other.

“The music has matured them. … It just tells me that music has a lot to say about how people from diversified groups can come together. And yet the freedom of the music helps them build their discipline.”

For Friday night’s performance, titled “New Orleans Swing Time,” Roberts will offer contemporary perspectives on classic works by Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, the two primary original architects of the music we call jazz. Few musicians today are more deeply versed in their innovations and philosophies than Roberts.

As for that “60 Minutes” piece (linked on marcusroberts.com), the months-long process of filming it gave the pianist new perspectives on his life in music, he says.

“It made me look at my career kind of wholistically, as a big, almost 30-year period of time” explains Roberts, who in May received an honorary doctorate degree from the Juilliard School.

“We normally don’t think of our careers that way, because we’re usually on to the next project. You do recordings, you teach and you play and, next thing you know, 10 or 20 or 30 years have gone by.”

Clearly Roberts has done a great deal during the past three decades and, like the “60 Minutes” program, the Juilliard doctorate has given him occasion to take stock.

“It’s something I’ll treasure the rest of my life – I have nothing but respect for the standards that they have maintained,” says Roberts. “I was really honored to receive it, and I’ll try to use it as a foundation for the next 30 years.”

Marcus Roberts to Receive Honorary Doctorate from Juilliard School

May 18th, 2014

Eight remarkable artists and philanthropists will be hooded and handed their degrees in person when The Juilliard School confers honorary doctorates during its 109th Commencement Ceremony on Friday, May 23, 2014 at 11 AM in Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center (Broadway at 65th Street, NYC).

The awards begin a ceremony in which Juilliard’s 289 (130 undergraduate and 159 graduate) actors, dancers, and musicians receive diplomas and learn who among them are receiving Juilliard’s graduation prizes – a closely-held surprise and an additional highlight of each commencement.

Receiving Juilliard’s Honorary Doctor of Music are:

  • Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who has soared to the top of the industry as both a performer and a fierce arts advocate. Ms. DiDonato is known for her impeccable technique and her joy of expression and her enthusiasm.

  • Inventive and pioneering architect Frank Owen Gehry, winner of the prestigious Pritzker Prize (1989), AIA Gold Medal, and National Medal of Arts, among numerous others, and architect of some of the world’s most iconic cultural buildings, including: the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles; New World Center in Miami; Bard College’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts in Annandale-on-Hudson; Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao and Abu Dhabi; Pritzker Music Pavilion in Chicago; Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein; Experience Music Project in Seattle; and just announced Facebook West Campus design in Menlo Park.
  • Composer and Juilliard alumnus Philip Glass, whose repertoire includes music for opera, dance, theater, chamber ensemble, orchestra, and film. His scores (Kundun, The Hours, Notes on a Scandal) have received Academy Award nominations and a Golden Globe Award (The Truman Show).

  • American jazz pianist, composer, arranger, and educator Marcus Roberts, who has been honored to receive many commissioning awards from Jazz at Lincoln Center, Chamber Music America, ASCAP, the North Carolina Association of Jazz Educators, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and the Savannah Music Festival.

Receiving Juilliard’s Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts are:

  • Actress and Juilliard alumna Viola Davis, who received Academy Award nominations for the films, The Help (2011) and Doubt (2008), and won Tony Awards for her portrayal of Tonya in King Hedley II (2001) and for her role as Rose Maxson in the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s Fences.

  • Choreographer and Juilliard alumnus Lar Lubovitch, one of America’s most versatile and popular choreographers. His dances are also performed by major companies throughout the world including Juilliard’s Dance Division. Juilliard Dance recently performed his 1986 work, Concerto Six Twenty-Two. He founded the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company in New York City 45 years ago.

Receiving Juilliard’s Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters are:

  • Philanthropists Bruce and Suzanne F. Kovner, who, through the Kovner Foundation, support education innovation and reform and performing arts institutions. They recently donated $60 million to Juilliard, the largest one-time donation in the School’s history, to create the Kovner Fellowship Program.

Juilliard’s 109th Commencement Ceremony will be streamed live so that the global community and- families across the country and around the world can share the day with the graduating actors, dancers, and musicians. Juilliard’s current student body is drawn from 35 states (plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico) and 44 countries outside the United States. The public at large is invited to watch as well at: http://live.juilliard.edu.


Jamming behind the scenes with jazz greats

March 30th, 2014

A 60 Minutes shoot never quite looked– or sounded– like this before. Life for jazz greats Wynton Marsalis and Marcus Roberts is a non-stop jam session.

What’s it like to hang out with jazz musicians? Just ask 60 Minutes producer David Browning, who teamed up with CBS correspondent Wynton Marsalis this week to report on the remarkable, little-known jazz pianist Marcus Roberts.

“Having a rollicking good time with jazz musicians, for me, is really, really easy,” says Browning. “I can’t think of anybody I’d rather hang out with, very frankly. They’re great conversationalists. They have tremendous senses of humor, Marcus and Wynton particularly. So for me, this was the ideal assignment.”

60 Minutes camera crews captured one of those rollicking scenes at a tiny house on the outskirts of Jacksonville, Fla., where Wynton, Marcus, and Marcus’ mother, Coretta, all joined in for an impromptu gospel jam. Then, at the neighborhood Baptist church around the corner, everyone but the cameraman took a turn pounding the keys of an out-of-tune piano.

“If there’s an instrument around, somebody’s gonna be playing it,” says Browning. “It’s their way of speaking. They literally live and breathe the music, 24/7.”

Click here to visit this CBS 60 Minutes story!

Visionary Man: Marcus Roberts and his expansive view of jazz.

March 28th, 2014

By Ted Panken
Jazziz, February 2014

Wynton Marsalis, who does not suffer fools and has built an empire doing things his way, does not readily accept criticism. But when pianist Marcus Roberts speaks, Marsalis listens.

During a 2005 interview, Marsalis enthusiastically recalled discussions with Roberts during the pianist’s 1985-’91 tenure in several of his bands. “We discussed philosophical questions about music, like whether in jazz the bottom can move like the top,” he told me. “It’s hard to create a groove with melodic motion in the bottom. So what do you do with the bass? We talked about a lot of harmony versus no harmony; atonal music versus tonal music; should we focus more on abstract concepts or on melody? Is abstraction a dead-end street or on the cutting edge?” Two years after that conversation, in October 2007, Marsalis drove 1,100 miles from New York City to Tallahassee, Florida, to collaborate with Roberts — who teaches at Florida State University.

Click here to read the entire article

Marcus Roberts: “All Kinds of Things”

March 28th, 2014

At 50, the pianist is as resourceful and ambitious as ever

by Michael J. West
Jazz Times, February 2014

“We were talking, the [Jazz at Lincoln Center] Orchestra, about who we consider to be a genius,” laughs Wynton Marsalis. “I said someone was a genius and cats were laughing at it. So I said, ‘All right, then, who do you consider a genius?’ And the cats said, ‘Marcus Roberts.’”

If anyone is aware of Roberts’ brilliance, it’s Marsalis; after all, he first made his mark in the trumpeter’s band from 1985 to 1991. Ask Roberts, though, and he’s simply a hard?working artist, even if his profile on the jazz landscape isn’t what it once was, despite efforts like his 2012 disc with Béla Fleck, Across the Imaginary Divide, and the nonet recording Deep in the Shed: A Blues Suite, released that same year. “To some folks it may have appeared like I haven’t been doing a lot over these last years,” the pianist and composer, 50, says on the phone from his home in Tallahassee. A native
Floridian, Roberts is a jazz studies professor at Florida State University. “Maybe the sense was that I was just walking my dog every day at 5 o’clock and wasn’t really doing much. But quite to the contrary, I’m always working—on all kinds of things.”

Click here to read the entire article

Marcus Roberts Elevates, Expands the Canon

March 28th, 2014

by Joe Tangari
DownBeat, February 2014

Pianist Marcus Roberts keeps a full schedule: composing, recording, touring and teaching. On Nov. 12 he released three new albums on his own J-Master label. From Rags To Rhythm features his trio with Jason Marsalis on drums and Rodney Jordan on bass. Roberts worked hard to compose music that gave his bandmates control over the direction of the music, and From Rags To Rhythm is an impressive suite that stays unpredictable over 12 complex movements. A new studio album, Together Again: In The Studio, and a live disc, Together Again: Live In Concert, both feature Roberts’ trio with Roland Guerin on bass and Wynton Marsalis guesting on trumpet. Roberts spoke with DownBeat to discuss the creative process behind the music.

Click here for the entire interview

‘Together Again’ With Wynton Marsalis, 20 Years Later

January 4th, 2014

by NPR Staff

Click here to listen to NPR podcast with Marcus Roberts


Marcus Roberts was a very young, very gifted pianist back in 1985, when Wynton Marsalis tapped him to join his band.

Six years later, Roberts went off to lead his own combo — and to write both jazz and classical music. And he taught. And he toured. And he recorded.

In fact, Marcus Roberts just released three new albums. One of them is a 12-part jazz suite. The other two take him back to the beginning: They’re his first collaborations with Wynton Marsalis in 20 years.

“A lot of people forget how well [Marsalis] still plays the trumpet, you know?” Roberts says. “It’s a funny story: I had one of my students prepare the microphone for him. We were doing the soundchecks and everything before we did the recording. Wynton walked in there and played one note. And of course, they had to completely adjust everything; he was putting so much sound through the horn. … Believe me, he wasn’t playing around.”

Marcus Roberts’ new collaborations with Wynton Marsalis are called Together Again in the Studio and Together Again Live in Concert. His trio plays on both those albums, and also accompanies him on his album of original music, From Rags to Rhythm.

Roberts recently spoke with weekends on All Things Considered host Arun Rath about the group dynamics of his trio (Rodney Jordan, bass; Jason Marsalis, drums), creating a 12-part suite and reuniting with his old bandmate.

“There’s just a comfort level,” Roberts says. “You know, it’s kind of rare out here. You have a lot of people that you work with, that you enjoy working with, and they can play and everything. But certainly with he and I there is some kind of special spiritual connection as well as a musical connection, so we understand what we’re out here doing. Even beyond just playing — it’s kind of an unspoken thing we’ve always had.”

Marcus Roberts’ Jazz At Lincoln Center Performance Exploded with Innovated Melodic Lines and Delicate Chromatic Harmonies

September 26th, 2013

By Danny R. Johnson
San Diego County News, September 2013

The late Shirley Valerie Horn, an American jazz singer and pianist, shared with me in a conversation at a Washington, DC jazz event back in 2002 her thoughts of pianist, composer, arranger, and jazz educator Marcus Roberts: “Marcus is probably the best musician around today who can play Harlem Stride piano in the style of Bud Powell, James Johnson, Art Tatum and Earl Hines all rolled into a sound that is uniquely his own.” Horn collaborated with many jazz greats including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Toots Thielemans, Ron Carter, Carmen McRae, Wynton Marsalis and others. And if there is anyone who knows jazz piano – Shirley knew what she was talking about.

Click here to read the entire article

Marcus Roberts releases new CD, Deep in the Shed: A Blues Suite

December 5th, 2012

J-Master Music is pleased to announce the release of Marcus Roberts’ new recording, Deep in the Shed: A Blues Suite, featuring a nonet of Roberts’ close musician friends, including regular trio members Rodney Jordan (bass) and Jason Marsalis (drums).

Deep in the Shed was originally written and released in 1989. After completely revising and re-arranging the suite, Marcus re-recorded it (in Tallahassee, FL) for the current release on his own label, J-Master Music. The story of the new recording can be found in the liner notes posted here on the website.

This new release, Deep in the Shed: A Blues Suite, will make a perfect addition to your holiday gift list for all your jazz aficionados! And while you are adding to your list don’t forget the Marcus Robert’s Trio’s 2011 holiday CD release Celebrating Christmas.

Celebrating Christmas was praised by reviewers, a best seller on Amazon’s Holiday CD list, and the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was selected by USA Today for their Holiday Playlist. Both CDs are available either through our web store or Amazon.

Downbeat Magazine Interview

August 30th, 2012

The September 2012 issue of Downbeat magazine includes an interview with Marcus Roberts and Béla Fleck about their current tour, Across the Imaginary Divide. The interview includes comments on the evolving chemistry of performing together on tour. You’ll find the article on page 18 of the magazine. Click here for the online version, and visit the calendar page of www.marcusroberts.com for a performance near you.