Marcus Roberts

New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1

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So much of Marcus Roberts' recorded canon has been about paying tribute to his heroes that there's an initial disappointment in learning that his first album in eight years returns to such familiar territory: the compositions of Duke Ellington, Scott Joplin, Thelonious Monk, Jelly Roll Morton, and Fats Waller. While Roberts is undeniably a gifted interpreter, he's previously dedicated entire albums to some of these gods, and one would have hoped for more than the one Roberts original that appears here, the closing tune, "Searching for the Blues." But Roberts is easily forgiven, as he has always brought enough of himself into his playing to earn respect as an originator, and he does so again here. Working with his usual accompanists, bassist Roland Guerin and drummer Jason Marsalis, Roberts matches introspection with a giddy chirpiness in Waller's "Honeysuckle Rose," puts a back-alley blues touch on Monk's "Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are," and, by giving a wide berth to his rhythm section, manages to turn Joplin's perennial "The Entertainer" into a very funky thing. Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'" stays closer to the script, and Roberts' take on Ellington's epic "Black and Tan Fantasy" lacks the sweeping grandeur of the template, but overall, Roberts succeeds admirably in making the case stated by the album's title: the line between the urbane sophistication of the Apple and drawled laid-back-ness of the Big Easy isn't quite as wide as one might think.

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