Roberts shines in an evening of improv

"You can swing anywhere," said acclaimed pianist Marcus Roberts as he introduced an original composition, "Any Time, Any Place," at a recent performance with the Florida State University Jazz Ensemble. That means "at your house, at school," even "at your grandparents' house."

The concert hall's not a bad place to cut loose, either. But last month in Tallahassee, Roberts was no spotlight- grabbing applause hound. Instead, he swung gently, presiding over a group of experienced and novice performers like one a merry monarch in a Shakespearean comedy - getting off many of the best lines himself, but also applauding the antics of the many and varied inhabitants of his stage-sized kingdom.

In recent years, some jazz aficionados have identified Roberts as the Next Big Thing, but he seems just as committed to working with young musicians as he is to promoting his own career. At the Oct. 22 performance, the FSU Jazz Ensemble took the stage first. Sartorially, the young performers were arrayed in hip/geek styles ranging from middle-management mafioso to Radio Shack stockboy.

Soon they were joined onstage by the pianist himself and the other members of the Marcus Roberts Trio, bass player Roland Guerin and drummer Jason Marsalis (of the famed New Orleans jazz family). The trio colluded with the ensemble for Ellington's "Harlem Airshaft" before jumping into their own version of Charles Mingus's "Haitian Fight Song," in which Guerin caressed his bass so softly that he almost seemed to be asleep, and then attacked it with fury as Roberts and Marsalis chimed in. The three musicians hooked up with ensemble director Leon Anderson, who is also a drummer, for "Any Time, Any Place," a mathematically daunting piece during which they added and subtracted from the 12 bars of standard blues in a way that made four men sound like 40.

Roberts's first exposure to music was in the Jacksonville church where his mother sang gospel. When he lost his sight at age 5, he began to play the piano on his own, later enrolling at Florida State to study classical performance. He joined trumpeter Wynton Marsalis's band at age 21 and played with that group for six years. Though he is at home in such prestigious venues as Lincoln Center, Roberts maintains a residence in Tallahassee, where he and his colleagues work with young musicians.

In the contemporary jazz world, neoclassicists like Wynton Marsalis hew to the formal structures laid down by the great early composers and denounce the experiments of later artists such as Miles Davis. Roberts takes his place among them, using improvisation to renew the work of the jazz masters while remaining true to the music's fundamentals. In his book "Blue: The Murder of Jazz," critic Eric Nisenson condemns the neoclassicists for stifling free expression. With equal vehemence, Wynton Marsalis argues in the current issue of "Downbeat" that "if you're going to play some music, you should know something about it."

Regardless of their loyalties, one thing most jazz lovers agree on is the primacy of live over recorded performance. What sets jazz apart from other music is that, neoclassical or free-style, the jazz performer is the composer, at least to some extent. The supreme pleasure of hearing Marcus Roberts play with musicians of widely varying ages and backgrounds lies in the music itself, but also in noting the joy the performers took in the work of their peers - for example, watching the young horn players all but fall into their music stands with laughter as Jason Marsalis embarked on an extended drum solo during John Coltrane's "Moment's Notice," interrupting himself with comical stutters and hiccups on the cymbals and snares.

As jazz musicians of every stripe will tell you, when the house lights go down and the guy in the front nods his head, all you have to do is swing, and the players that night swung with as much style as they dressed.

The title of the Roberts tune says it all: Any time, baby. Any place.

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