Picks and Pans Review: As Serenity Approaches
Part of what makes Roberts such a stimulating and accomplished pianist is that he is perpetually Deep in the Shed—the colloquialism for intensive study and practice that he took as the title of his 1990 second album.
In his fifth album, he's working on using both hands. Not that he had one tied behind his back, but here he's immersing himself in the legacy of great stride pianists like James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, known as "two-handed" players not only for the oom-pah locomotion in their lefts but for the volume of sound and complexity of line both hands generated.
The music is as robust as its 28-year-old creator, who wrote nine of the 17 compositions. Strikingly vibrant and varied, the Roberts originals range from the poignant meditation of "Angel" to the comic onomatopoeia of "Slippin' and Slidin' " to the ecstatic strut of "Preach, Reverend, Preach." The originals blend seamlessly with often stunning reinterpretations of such classics as "Cherokee" and "Creole Blues." Virtuoso pedaling and sensitive phrasing turn "I Remember You" into a set of shimmering refractions. The 76-minute album includes eight leavening duets (including Wynton Marsalis on Jelly Roll Morton's "King Porter Stomp" and Wynton's father, pianist Ellis, on a rather stately stroll through Waller's "The Jitterbug Waltz").
Some pianists when they solo dazzle you with hand-is-quicker-than-the-ear virtuosity. Roberts's style is unhurried, uncrowded, unusually disciplined. What makes Serenity and 1991's equally fine Alone with Three Giants so commanding is his clarity, subtlety, tonal richness and keen sense of structure. On these albums he sounds different than when he solos with a band around him. What he's doing is refining an approach to the piano as the ultimate solo instrument, an orchestra in a box. Catch up with it. It's something to hear. (RCA/Novus)
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