For Béla Fleck, what began as an informal sit-in jam with the Marcus Roberts Trio at the 2009 Savannah Music Festival has brought to fruition a completely conceived collaborative effort on Across the Imaginary Divide. This might have been a lot easier for both men if they'd focused on simply interpreting jazz, bluegrass, and blues standards in a unique (read: gimmicky) manner, but it would not have been true to either musician's nature. Neither has ever taken the easy way out. Almost all of the music here was written especially for this project by either Roberts or Fleck, albeit separately with this recording in mind. The melding of styles here is dizzying and the two front-line players both exchange not only solos, but often various counterpoint exercises in melody (the title track being a stellar example). On Roberts' "I'm Gonna Tell You This Story One More Time," blues, Latin grooves, and bossa all intertwine. Fleck's "Kalimba" reflects the work he's been doing with African music in recent years, but the trio extends his solo intro (which actually mirrors the tonalities of the thumb piano the tune was named for) and transforms it first into a scintillating minor-mode ballad, before shape-shifting it into a swinging hard bop tune. What's more compelling is the way bassist Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis interact with the front line; whether it's reversing roles in the middle of Roberts' "The Sunshine and the Moonlight" or actually taking the lead during the bridge of Fleck's "That Old Thing." Given that the banjo is a front-line instrument in this ensemble, bluegrass does make appearances here, especially in the opener, "Some Roads Lead Home," and in the lone jointly written "Petunia," but it is an element in a music that also references gospel, Gypsy jazz, Ellingtonian swing, bop, hard bop, post-bop, and deep blues. Across the Imaginary Divide is not only a well-realized collaboration between four musical masters, but a study in the integration of roots music from the 19th and 20th centuries as they are transformed into 21st century jazz.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek