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Marcus Roberts: New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1

Marcus Roberts’ first studio session in eight years brings to mind his 1990 release, Alone With Three Giants. Only this time around he isn’t performing solo-adroitly accompanying Roberts are bassist Roland Guerin and drummer Jason Marsalis-and the pantheon of piano titans now includes Scott Joplin and Fats Waller, in addition to Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton and Thelonious Monk.

As its title suggests, New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1 is all about linkage and legacies, though even more obvious than Roberts’ firm grasp of seminal keyboard traditions and polyphonic weaves is his flair for turning familiar pieces, and some not so familiar ones, into something that sounds both evocative and thoroughly modern. Prime examples here include his imaginative takes on Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” a rhythmically fitful, seven-minute-plus deconstruction that is nostalgic and forward-thinking by turns, and “Jitterbug Waltz,” an impressionistic rendering that moves from an elliptical introduction of the spiraling melody to a tender resolution.

Roberts’ distinctive arrangements make the most of the trio format-at times, in fact, they suggest the influence of Ahmad Jamal’s fully integrated small combos. The interaction with Guerin and Marsalis contributes to the album’s rooted pleasures and appealing tangents when the focus shifts to “Honeysuckle Rose,” “In Walked Bud” and other standards. Of course, the album’s scope allows Roberts ample room to stretch out in a variety of re-harmonized settings variously driven by Crescent City syncopation, stride inflections, ringing gospel chords and Monk-inspired motion. Not to be missed, too, is an engaging performance of Ellington’s seldom-heard delight “Pie Eye’s Blues.”

Originally Published