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Marcus Roberts and the Modern Jazz Generation: Romance, Swing and the Blues

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Marcus Roberts went large with his latest. Financing the project with a Kickstarter campaign, the pianist-composer maintained his loyal trio of bassist Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis, called upon tenor saxophonist Stephen Riley, an early cohort, then expanded the ensemble threefold, bringing in eight more horn players to flesh out his ideas. The setup, bursting with that grandiosity that characterized the classic big bands, goes back several decades-the specter of Ellington surfaces often-but Roberts, with no irony in sight, calls his new band the Modern Jazz Generation.

Romance, Swing and the Blues, built around a suite initially commissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Center in 1993, spreads out over two CDs. All of it was written, produced and arranged in its entirety by Roberts, and the solos, save for Roberts’ own, are rationed conservatively; showcasing the individuals takes a backseat to the wholeness of the work.

Yet there’s never a sense of pomposity or bloat; Roberts is careful to leave enough air and space for these tunes to breathe. From the start, “The Mystery of Romance,” he strikes a balance, quickly dispensing with the main theme on piano, then giving it up to the battery of horns. The piece shifts time often and with great fanfare, and by the time Roberts makes his return-burning hot now-the ensemble has already pushed the pedal to the floor.

When a soloist does emerge, there’s no coyness: Ron Westray’s trombone spot on “It’s a Beautiful Night to Celebrate” is economical but feisty and provides a smooth lead-in to a fiery Roberts volley. “Being Attacked by the Blues,” the second disc’s 13-minute opener, is constructed atop Jordan’s bass; he meanders solo at first, then solidly drives the rest of the crew.

That’s the romance and the blues. As for the swing, it’s never too far away. Roberts may have gone for an oversized statement with this one, but no one was about to tell him he couldn’t have a little fun making it.

Originally Published