Next week virtuoso jazz pianist, composer, recording artist and educator Marcus Roberts will make his first appearance in Baton Rouge since 2000.
The Marcus Roberts Trio, featuring New Orleans drummer Jason Marsalis and one of the pianist’s music professor colleagues at Florida State University in Tallahassee, bassist Rodney Jordan, will perform Wednesday at the Manship Theatre. It’s the final concert in this season’s River City Jazz Masters Series.
Roberts signed his first recording contract with BMG in 1988 and later recorded for Columbia Records. Many of his albums reached No. 1 on Billboard’s traditional jazz chart. His recent recordings include “New Orleans Meets Harlem: Volume 1” and “Deep in the Shed: A Blues Suite.”
A pianist since early childhood, Roberts has been playing the instrument for more than 40 years. Despite those decades of work, he continuously cultivates his keyboard skills and artistry.
“The key is to try to improve a little bit every day,” he said. “I still practice piano with specific goals and specific things I want to improve and develop. And if you have a band, then you’re trying to get the band to a certain place.”
Roberts, a native of Jacksonville, Florida, who’s based in Tallahassee, hasn’t performed in Louisiana often in the past few years, but he always enjoys being here.
“It’s a soulful state,” he said. “A lot of good musicians, a lot of good food, real friendly environment.”
Through the years, Louisiana has been a great source of musicians for Roberts. His trio lineup currently features charter-member Marsalis, brother of jazz musicians Wynton and Delfeayo Marsalis and son of pianist-educator Ellis Marsalis. For many years, too, Baton Rouge native Roland Guerin played bass in the Marcus Roberts Trio.
New Orleans musicians Roberts has worked with also include drummer and percussionist Shannon Powell and trumpeter Nicholas Payton. He was also pianist with Wynton Marsalis for six years.
“New Orleans is a special city, for sure,” Roberts said. “You feel the pulse of how much people love music in that town. The city represents the foundation of jazz, as we know it.”
There are certain givens when the pianist works with New Orleans musicians.
“You don’t have to convince them of the importance of working on the cultural part of music,” Roberts said. “They grew up with that. Sometimes if I work with kids who really don’t come from musical cities, they don’t necessarily have the same understanding. That doesn’t mean that they work less hard or are less able to get it over time.”
It’s still a big advantage that musicians such as Powell and Herlin Riley carry their indigenous cultural-musical heritage with them wherever they go.
“Shannon Powell, he can just groove you to death with any percussion instrument that is available to him,” Roberts said. “And Nick Payton, who started with me when he was 15 or 16, all those guys, they’re always extremely serious about the music. They’re not intimidated by jazz music, because they grew up with it. It’s usually in the family, in their blood.
“They feel like it’s what they’re supposed to do. As long as you give them the tools to do what you want them to do, they do it with a certain flair and stylization that’s unique to their city and their state.”
Although Guerin left the Marcus Roberts Trio in 2010, his participation in the group continues to guide it. “Roland is really one of the most talented people I know. He’s somebody who can play any style music and have the spice and the flavor of the music in his sound. He’s a thinker, he’s a composer,
“Roland and Jason are the foundation of the Marcus Roberts Trio style,” the pianist said. “That approach brings the bass and the drums to the forefront, making them equal to the piano. Rodney Jordan will tell you that a lot of what he does in our group is based on what Roland brought to it.”