Piano virtuoso Marcus Roberts plays Valentine’s Day show at the Wheeler Opera House
Marcus Roberts can play just about anything in the jazz piano tradition, which he’s propelling forward in the 21st century as one of its leading performers. And yes, of course, at his Valentine’s Day show at the Wheeler Opera House on Saturday, he can provide a soundtrack for a romantic Aspen evening.
“We’ll certainly play songs that will help people that are in love have a good time with their sweetheart,” Roberts said from Tallahassee, Florida before setting out on tour.
Roberts will be performing with a trio – accompanied by longtime collaborators Jason Marsalis on drums and Rodney Jordan on bass. He often plays with larger bands, but said the simple bass, drum and piano set-up allows for each band member to move the direction of improvisation.
“The more instruments you have, the less space you have,” he said. “You can improvise a lot in both formats, but what makes the trio format so attractive is that the bass and drums don’t have to function strictly as a complement to the music. You can put them in the position of contributing more to the direction of what’s being played. That’s what’s intriguing about it.”
Along with the mushy stuff, Roberts said to expect interpretations of jazz standards alongside his original compositions.
A prolific performer and composer, Roberts, 51, has recorded 24 albums including four in the last two years.
His latest album, the evocative double-LP “”Romance, Swing and the Blues,” shows Roberts writing songs that bring the ups and downs and nuances of relationships to life in music. On “Oh, No! How Could You,” for instance, Roberts has a baritone and soprano sax duel like a bickering couple, then work it out together and eventually settle into harmony together. The brilliant, enthralling piece is representative of Roberts’ virtuosity as a composer and interpreter.
In concert, he’s distinguished himself by balancing the informal and intellectual sides of jazz history, playing with a charismatic stage presence and an erudite grasp on the form’s traditions.
Roberts lost his eyesight at age 5 and started playing piano when he was 8, teaching himself and giving his first performances at his family’s church in Jacksonville. He and has committed himself to it ever since. He studied at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, the same program that bred Ray Charles. Reading music in braille, he learned the works of classical masters and steeped himself in music history. In a “60 Minutes” profile last year, he showcased his mastery of music through the ages, playing “America the Beautiful” as it might be interpreted by Duke Ellington, then Thelonious Monk, then offering what Gershwin would sound like if he lived in Berlin in the 18th century.
Roberts grew to admire Charles as an adult, but as a kid, Stevie Wonder was his hero and he immersed himself in the work of pianists like Ellington, Ahmad Jamal and Erroll Garner before coming around to embracing Charles.
“Ray Charles is celebrated by all American genres and styles,” he said. “Somehow his voice and approach is suited to every American style that there is. So the rock people love Ray. The jazz people love Ray. In hip-hop they love Ray. What I take from his music is that it’s completely American and you can fit the soul of it into any style.”
When he was a teenager, Roberts met trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who later brought him on tour. Marsalis has called him “the greatest American musician most people have never heard of.” Roberts said Marsalis taught him to speak his mind and stand up for the music he believes in.
“For my music to have value, it’s important for the culture to know that Monk was a complete genius and made a huge contribution to American culture,” he said. “If his music is unknown, it will be much harder for my music to have relevance.”
He went on to study at Florida State University, where he now teaches.
Teaching, he said, forces him to grow as a musician because he needs to use what a student knows in order to help them learn.
“You have to draw deeper into what you know,” he said. “Sometimes you have to learn other things just to teach them. So it has a real reciprocal effect. When you give of yourself, that improves your artistic knowledge and approach and increases the amount of creativity you have.”
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