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Marcus Roberts: The Joy of Joplin

A bandstand encounter with pianist Marcus Roberts can be a study in deep dignity and obvious earnestness, though he is reputed to be quite the character in personal encounters. Both sides of Marcus Roberts intersect on this solo program of eight of Scott Joplin’s gems, and eight Roberts originals in the Joplin tradition. The familiar “The Entertainer” opens the program, and Roberts invests the piece with a jaunty tempo, figurative bowler hat cocked to the side, cane tapping lively, ready for fun. Roberts strolls this one and grants it an improvisational touch that separates it from its customary treatments. He envelopes “Maple Leaf Rag” in an equal sense of frolic. In fact, though Roberts addresses Joplin and his originals with serious preparation and reverence, he clearly goes for the fun factor, eliciting the playful attitude Joplin laid between the grooves of so much of his material.

Throughout the program Marcus Roberts displays the kind of ambidextrous skills-dig his stomping left hand on “Bethena’s Waltz”-at the piano that have separated him from the pack since he first hit. He has an enormous interpretive gift, assisted by a profound touch at the keyboard that always serves his interpretations well. One original, “Play What You Hear,” bears an almost peerless sense of cunning in its delivery and stands as his deepest statement. Clearly anyone familiar with Roberts’ previous interpretations, whether they be Monk, Ellington, James P., or Gershwin (hey Marcus, how ’bout Tatum sometime?), knows that he does it with carloads of heart, deep investigation of the artist’s original intent, and fresh examinations. These Joys of Joplin are in that same bag.

Originally Published