Jazz pianist Marcus Roberts teams up with the Boulder Philharmonic

Renowned jazz pianist Marcus Roberts, who started playing in Wynton Marsalis’ band when he was in his early twenties, got his start with his George Gershwin arrangement Concerto in F in 2003 with Seiji Ozawa conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Roberts took an innovative approach to the concerto, reinventing it and leaving room for improvisation, just as he had done with Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” nearly a decade earlier.

Roberts and his trio will perform another update Concerto in F as well as Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” with the Boulder Philharmonic on Saturday January 22 at the Macky Auditorium and Sunday January 23 at the Lone Tree Arts Center. Nearly two decades after launching his version of Concerto in F, Roberts says he’s always looking for new ways to approach music.

“I always approach [the composition] like I haven’t played it,” Roberts says. “I can sort of reset and have a different mindset, because every conductor is a little different. The tempos are slightly different; it’s a little faster here, a little slower there. I might bring out the strings more here, the brass more there. People think that classical music should always be played the same way. This is certainly not the case.

Although the addition of double bass and drums helped modernize the concerto, Roberts notes that there have also been many components introduced into jazz since Gershwin wrote it.

“[Gershwin] wrote it in 1925,” Roberts says. “The Count Basie’s Orchestra hadn’t started yet. Duke Ellington had a quartet or quintet at the time; he did not yet have a big band. So a lot of things happened between 1925 and 2003, when I created it. And certainly now in 2022 we can bring a lot of style to the room.

“And what’s great about Gershwin’s music is that it’s so flexible,” he continues. “So you can really approach his music by introducing it in collaboration with other stylistic influences that you might not be as comfortable with Mozart or Mendelssohn.”
Roberts says he and his trio added lots of grooves throughout the piece and spent a lot of time figuring out what would be appropriate to add.

“There are certain sections where we don’t play at all because we want Gershwin’s beautiful orchestration to come out,” Roberts says. “There are other places where we added a few sections just to explore certain themes a bit.”

He says it was much harder to arrange Concerto in F that it was “Rhapsody in Blue” (from his 1995 album, Portraits in blue), which he says is essentially a series of piano cadenzas.

“Corn Concerto in F is such a wonderful orchestration,” he adds. “You really had to figure out how to coordinate with the orchestra, how to Americanize it without destroying the European structures that Gershwin put in place with the piece. We didn’t want to interrupt the orchestration. We didn’t want to impose things that completely changed what he had in mind.

Roberts has released two dozen albums under his own name since The truth is told here, his debut in 1988, also featuring drummer Elvin Jones and saxophonist Charlie Rouse. With Roberts’ Trio (which draws inspiration from the Ahmad Jamal Trio), there’s a dynamic interaction between Roberts on piano, bassist Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis, who has also found ways to update Concerto in F adding different grooves from what is found in the 2003 version.

“It’s crazy, some of the things he brings spontaneously now,” Roberts says of Marsalis. “It looks like he’s just playing a standard, he knows that so well. So the drum chair has a lot to do with the arrangement.

Roberts says Marsalis and Jordan fit like a glove and are adjusting to each other.

“I let them do whatever they want,” he says. “And that really inspires me in a lot of ways to change as well. I’m really influenced a lot by both of them in terms of the improvisation that we bring to it.

The Marcus Roberts Trio and the Boulder Philharmonic, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, January 22, Macky Auditorium, 1595 Pleasant Street, Boulder, $18-$78; 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 23, Lone Tree Arts Center, 10075 Commons Street, Lone Tree, $30-$50.

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