Music Interviews
1:03 pm
Sat December 28, 2013

'Together Again' With Wynton Marsalis, 20 Years Later

Originally published on Sat December 28, 2013 5:54 pm

Marcus Roberts was a very young, very gifted pianist back in 1985, when Wynton Marsalis tapped him to join his band.

Six years later, Roberts went off to lead his own combo — and to write both jazz and classical music. And he taught. And he toured. And he recorded.

In fact, Marcus Roberts just released three new albums. One of them is a 12-part jazz suite. The other two take him back to the beginning: They're his first collaborations with Wynton Marsalis in 20 years.

"A lot of people forget how well [Marsalis] still plays the trumpet, you know?" Roberts says. "It's a funny story: I had one of my students prepare the microphone for him. We were doing the soundchecks and everything before we did the recording. Wynton walked in there and played one note. And of course, they had to completely adjust everything; he was putting so much sound through the horn. ... Believe me, he wasn't playing around."

Marcus Roberts' new collaborations with Wynton Marsalis are called Together Again in the Studio and Together Again Live in Concert. His trio plays on both those albums, and also accompanies him on his album of original music, From Rags to Rhythm.

Roberts recently spoke with weekends on All Things Considered host Arun Rath about the group dynamics of his trio (Rodney Jordan, bass; Jason Marsalis, drums), creating a 12-part suite and reuniting with his old bandmate.

"There's just a comfort level," Roberts says. "You know, it's kind of rare out here. You have a lot of people that you work with, that you enjoy working with, and they can play and everything. But certainly with he and I there is some kind of special spiritual connection as well as a musical connection, so we understand what we're out here doing. Even beyond just playing — it's kind of an unspoken thing we've always had."

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Again, you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Pianist Marcus Roberts was a star in the jazz world when he was still very young - barely drinking age when he joined Wynton Marsalis' quartet. Since leaving the Marsalis group in 1990, Roberts has been incredibly productive, breathing new life into the works of composers including Gershwin and James P. Johnson and writing original music with his own ensemble. And if that weren't enough, Marcus Roberts just released three new albums. One of them is a 12-part jazz suite. The other two reunite him with his old bandleader. They're his first collaborations with Wynton Marsalis in 20 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARCUS ROBERTS: A lot of people forget how well he still plays the trumpet, you know. There's a funny story. Like I had one of my students kind of prepared the microphone for him. We were, you know, doing the sound checks and everything before we did the recording. And Wynton walked in there, and he played one note and they have - of course, he had to completely readjust everything. He was putting so much sound through the horn.

RATH: I know trumpet players can take a lot of pride in being able to wreck a microphone.

ROBERTS: Well, believe me, he wasn't playing around.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERTS: There's just a comfort level. You know, it's kind of rare out here. You know, you have a lot of people that you work with, that you enjoy working with. And they can play and everything, but certainly with he and I, there is some kind of special spiritual connection as well as a musical connection. So we understand what we're out here doing even beyond just playing, like, this - it's kind of an unspoken thing that we've always had.

RATH: Is there a song in particular that really reflects that way in which you kind of almost had that telepathic connection?

ROBERTS: Yeah. Like "Mack the Knife" from - in the studios like that.

RATH: "Mack the Knife," you know, that's such a well-worn tune, but you guys are coming back to it like kids, almost.

ROBERTS: Yeah. It's just playful. Yeah, it's one of those tunes that's just really joyous to play.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: I want to talk about "From Rags to Rhythm," that's your new 12-part suite. And it's interesting because you're messing a little bit with the usual jazz structure - at least the one that we're - most people are used to, where usually you hear the melody at the top and then each member takes it and improvises on that melody. You're doing something differently here. Could you explain what's different?

ROBERTS: Well, our bass player, Rodney Jordan, in the first movement, he introduces all of the thematic material that you're going to hear doing his first solo, which starts the CD.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "FROM RAGS TO RHYTHM")

ROBERTS: Throughout all 12 movements, we play a theme. And everybody is freely interacting with that theme.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "FROM RAGS TO RICHES")

ROBERTS: Or if they wish, they can play other themes that are part of that initial statement that Rodney makes in the very beginning of the suite. So we really develop these themes throughout all 12 movements. I think that's what kind of different.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "FROM RAGS TO RICHES")

RATH: The way you're describing it, it sounds like it's kind of amazing that it doesn't sound like chaos on the record. These two people that you have with you - you have Jason Marsalis playing drums, Rodney Jordan on the bass - I want to play a little - I want to hear the top of "From the Edge of the Unknown."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "FROM THE EDGE OF THE UNKNOWN")

RATH: I feel like there's a lot of conversation between you and Rodney Jordan on this album. What do you guys say in there?

ROBERTS: It's true. We are always interconnected. We're always thinking, I guess, consciously and subconsciously, you know, the music is arranged a certain way. You know, yeah, there are transitional sections that we work on and that we rehearse, but ultimately in jazz music, in any art form that requires group participation, what you want on a certain level is your subconscious to kind of lead you a certain way so that the interaction is almost like conversational. And that's how it is with me and Rodney. We just - it's like we're almost talking about something.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "FROM THE EDGE OF THE UNKNOWN")

ROBERTS: The sophistication that he brings opens it up for both me and Jason so that we can actually freely explore things that maybe normally we wouldn't. But we know he's got our backs. So if we make a mistake, even, somebody's going to cover you. And I think that's an important message for the culture in general. Like, a lot of times in America when we have debates and controversies, like the tendency is to throw people under the bus or look for whose fault something is, instead of looking at what can we do to share the burden of it and find a resolution that's positive and what can we do to protect their interests as long as look at our own situation. It doesn't have to always be that.

RATH: Sounds like the jazz trio is a pretty good model for democracy to try to follow.

ROBERTS: Well, you know, I think jazz music itself is. I mean, it - because they're not always playing what you wish they would play. And you still got to find, like, a gracious way to make it work. And that's one of the messages in our music that's profound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "FROM THE EDGE OF THE UNKNOWN")

RATH: That's pianist Marcus Roberts. He's just put out three new albums - two with Wynton Marsalis and one with his trio, a 12-part suite. Marcus Roberts, thank you.

ROBERTS: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "FROM THE EDGE OF THE UNKNOWN")

RATH: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Look for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. And follow us on Twitter: @nprwatc. Tune in tomorrow. We'll reminisce about the golden age of airline travel - no metal detectors, no security at all, just lots of hijackings. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.