Picks and Pans Review: Portraits in Blue
One of jazz's best younger pianists, Marcus Roberts, 32, has bravura technique, an analytical cast of mind and big ambitions. On these simultaneously released albums, he ventures beyond the jazzman's traditional turf—the 5-or 6-minute song—into longer, more demanding forms: orchestral music on Portraits in Blue (Sony Classical) and a 14-part suite for jazz trio on Time and Circumstance (Sony).
The centerpiece of Portraits is Roberts's retooling of Gershwin's 1924 "Rhapsody in Blue." The original was classical music spiced with jazz; here, jazz holds sway. Roberts makes "Rhapsody" breathe—not just by replacing its rinky-dink, Sousa-style rhythms with loose-limbed grooves, but by opening it up to his improvisers: alto saxophonist Wes Anderson (who evokes Johnny Hodges better than any young hornman), trumpeter Marcus Printup and 19-year-old drummer Jason Marsalis (brother of Roberts's former employer Wynton).
An album-length suite, Time and Circumstance is meant to describe the ups and downs of a love affair. Creating this detailed a story line seems a bit misconceived: Without liner notes, you wouldn't know there was one. Still, the music soars. Roberts and his Maserati of a band (Jason Marsalis and 18-year-old bassist David Grossman) shift from mood to mood. "Exploration" is fleet and buoyant, "Alone" desolate. The final piece, "Renewed Vision," restates all the suite's themes but as a wholly new song that builds to a powerful climax. Clearly, Roberts didn't need to drape Time and Circumstance in a ponderous overcoat of ideas.
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