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

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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