Deeper in the Shed: Marcus Roberts and Memories

The pianist's first headlining appearance at the Village Vanguard in 15 years has JT's editor looking back

Village Vanguard, November 13, 2018

Marcus Roberts at the Village Vanguard, New York, Nov. 13, 2018 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

My November 2018 was emotionally all over the place. First there was the crushing news of Roy Hargrove’s death (see our obituary; a more in-depth appreciation of that wonderful, and sorely missed, trumpeter by one of his closest friends will appear in our next issue). Then there was the excitement of tabulating our contributors’ votes for my debut year-end Top 50 list as JazzTimes editor (and it was exciting, even though the No. 1 new and historical albums were pretty much foregone conclusions).

And then there were the moments that put everything in wider perspective. The most memorable of those happened at the Village Vanguard on Nov. 13, as I watched pianist Marcus Roberts make his first headlining appearance at that club in 15 years, covering his 1990 album Deep in the Shed in its entirety. That disc, his second as a leader, doesn’t generally get great ratings, despite its distinguished supporting cast (including a certain E. Dankworth, a.k.a. Wynton Marsalis). But Roberts has continued to tinker with its material, recutting it in 2012 and using it as a training platform for his students at Florida State University. The way it sounds these days, you’d have to call it a career highlight.

On the original Deep in the Shed, Roberts worked with six other pieces. At the Vanguard, he had eight musicians—drummer Jason Marsalis; bassist Thaddeus Exposé; trombonist/tubist Corey Wilcox; reedmen Ricardo Pascal, Boyce Griffith, and Joe Goldberg; and trumpeters Alphonso Horne and Randall Haywood—several of whom studied with him at FSU. The extra instrumentation added a welcome richness to numbers like “Spiritual Awakening” and “Nebuchadnezzar,” which no longer belabor their debt to Ellington. This was no facsimile of a facsimile, but intricate, surprising, thoroughly lived-in music.

I took in the set with a special guest: my wife. Twenty-two years ago, on our third date, we saw Marcus Roberts at the Village Vanguard. Jason Marsalis was the drummer back then too, and a mere 19. The mists of time have obscured many performance details, but it’s likely that they played some Deep in the Shed tunes. My wife-to-be then worked for the publicity firm representing Roberts, so we went in the back room to say hi after the show. I’d barely been introduced to the bandleader—who, I’ll emphasize, is blind—before he asked a pointed question: “So what’s up with you two?”

Clearly, the man was on to something. And now, sitting in that same club with the same woman and the same people playing the same music so many years later, remembering that long-ago moment and conscious of all that had happened since—the births, deaths, victories, and setbacks—I was happy to be reminded that amid our everyday vicissitudes, some things do steadily improve with age. Like friendship, and love, and great jazz.