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08/07/12

Across the Imaginary Divide
Béla Fleck and the Marcus Roberts Trio
Rounder

Across the Imaginary Divide’s stylistic blend works best when tilting in banjoist Béla Fleck’s direction. It’s not that pianist Marcus Roberts falls short in either playing or concept, embracing old-school traditions as well as modernism. Far from it. Roberts seems far more comfortable on Fleck’s turf—his trademarked fusion of bluegrass, jazz and rock—than vice versa.

“Petunia,” for example, finds Fleck charging like a jackrabbit through a straight-up bluegrass jam. Roberts not only keeps up with him, he counters Fleck’s workout with a beautifully constructed blues, then trades places so that the banjo plays the blues and the piano plays the workout. Elsewhere the album evokes Fleck’s fusion approach. “One Blue Truth” is a midtempo stroll built on a gentle rock backbeat; bassist Rodney Jordan splits the theme with Fleck, who crafts a melodic, feathery-toned improvisation, which Roberts follows with a masterfully sweet solo that alludes to Fleck’s.

Put Fleck in a ragtime or folk tune, however, and he sounds ham-fisted. It doesn’t help that Jordan’s arco on “Let Me Show You What to Do” sounds like he’s playing a jug, but it’s Fleck’s self-consciously twangy theme that ultimately undoes it. His work on the tango “I’m Gonna Tell You This Story One More Time” disrupts the flowing rhythm with spastic run-on lines. On the closers “That Old Thing” and “That Ragtime Feeling,” he’s just plain corny (though a stellar Jason Marsalis drum solo redeems the latter).

Uneven though it is, Divide is consistent in that everyone’s clearly having fun throughout. And Roberts and Fleck have real chemistry. Given a steadier, more amenable design, they’d do very well together.

Originally published in July/August 2012
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