Marcus Roberts Trio plus Wycliffe Gordon and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
(The Grange, Northington, Hampshire, 2 July. Review by Alison Bentley)
“It really is a true collaborative environment between jazz and classical music, and we need that,” said American pianist Marcus Roberts in the theater at The Grange, a 17th century mansion near Winchester. Roberts’ trio plus trombonist/vocalist Wycliffe Gordon were about to work with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. But first came the jazz quartet…
Pulsing confident swing brought blues in shifting keys, Gordon’s trombone full of life. Roberts was a relaxed and charming compere. He introduced his Everybody Wants to Belong with: “Everybody wants to be part of something, right?” The easy swing of a major blues brought gospel-edged trills to his piano. Roland Guerin’s bass had a rich and resonant tone. Jason Marsalis hit the sides of the tom in a powerful backbeat. The wah wah of the trombone had a droll, growly humour. “Jason loves odd meters,” said Roberts, and What is This Thing Called Love? zipped in and out of 9 and boppy double time with an extraordinary drum solo. Gordon sang Mack the Knife with some of Armstrong’s gravel over delicate brushes; though his vivacious scat singing was more Ella than Louis. Roberts’ left hand stayed close to the tune then chased the right hand all over the keyboard, before a pleasing interchange of ideas on a two chord vamp.
Mingus’ Haitian Fight Song had a different feel in the earthy snap of bass strings on wood, the intonation perfect as the notes bent back into shape over the rush of cymbals. Roberts’ There is Beauty in the World was a New Orleans-style shuffle given complexity by unexpected key changes. Roberts dug into Art Tatum-esque detail, while Gordon showed his nifty sense of humour singing through his mouthpiece. The trio played Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz, laying a smooth carpet under gentle sparkling piano – almost a cha cha. Gordon came back in to lead call and response with the audience in It Don’t Mean a ThingRoberts’ stride piano leading with incredible timing.
The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra opened the second half. Roberts had been keen to have some French music in the programme, conductor Gavin Sutherland told us. Debussy’s sensuous orchestration of Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1, with its major 7th chords and understated melancholy, fitted perfectly into a jazz context. Ravel had been a big inspiration for Roberts, we were told, and the former’s Pavane Pour une Infante Défunte seemed to evoke jazz harmony with its luxuriantly descending bass lines. As the quartet joined the orchestra, it led seamlessly into Roberts’ own Seeking Peace, written during lockdown. “It really was a time for reflection,” Roberts told Radio 3 earlier in the week. “…it’s about being in harmony with the world around you despite the challenges.” Strings soared out of the piano waltz, Roberts’ emphatic grace notes anchoring the piano firmly. There was a powerful inner focus in the piece – a strong peace, not a resigned one, with its occasional dissonance and beautiful spread chords.
Bass, trombone and drums each had a short solo spot. Gordon played a breakneck Cherokee, the slap of the strings acting as a percussive accompaniment to his propulsive improvisation. Gordon’s “little gut bucket” found new sounds in the blues scale with his mute. Marsalis demonstrated a mesmerising range of styles on the snare with paradiddles aplenty.
In Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Roberts told Radio 3, he improvises the piano cadenzas, drawing on the influences of pianists like Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson and James P Johnson, as well as classical music: “…the key thing being both art forms maintaining their integrity… classical musicians will not have to improvise and we don’t have to play everything strictly as written.”
The opening clarinet glissando brought a familiar thrill; Roberts’ improvisations were both virtuosic and uplifting. To hear the quartet swing with the orchestra was exciting. The original score says “wait for nod from George,” Sutherland told us, and you could feel the orchestra hanging on Roberts’ every note. The physical power of Roberts’ playing was remarkable in contrast with his earlier delicacy. “We just composed that tonight,” he fitted.
I Got Rhythm was a brilliant and lighthearted encore, swapping phrases with glee and competing to have the last note. The audience thundered their appreciation for these extraordinary musicians.
LINK: The Grange Festival website