Friday, April 1, 2011

Savannah Jazz Party: Bela Fleck and the Marcus Roberts Trio

Kenneth Routon recently attended the annual Savannah Music Festival and filed this report for Afropop Worldwide. Read his previous entries here

Several years ago at the Savannah Music Festival, Bela Fleck was invited to an afterhour’s jam session. The great Florida-based jazz pianist Marcus Roberts was there and Fleck decided to go out and get his banjo. Roberts wasn’t familiar with Fleck’s music but his drummer, and youngest member of New Orleans’ “First Family of Jazz,” Jason Marsalis, was apparently a big fan, and soon handed Roberts a few of his favorite recordings by the banjo virtuoso. Coming from a background in bluegrass music (he first picked up the banjo at age fifteen after hearing Flatt & Scruggs’ theme song to the Beverly Hillbillies), Fleck wasn’t sure if Roberts would be all that open to him and his music. But, as it turns out, Roberts was completely floored and the two soon got together again down in Florida for some private sessions.

Their occasional behind-the-scenes musical dialogues have remained a mostly private affair – that is, until last night. Before a standing room only crowd at the Morris Center, Fleck and the Marcus Roberts Trio – which includes Marsalis on drums and Rodney Jordon on bass – played a truly staggering, awe-inspiring one-time gig of original compositions with some ragtime and jazz classics and a few more from each of their own repertoires thrown in for good measure. As to be expected, there were impressive improvised solos, surprising syncopations, and crazy time signatures. But what really gave me the chills were those moments when piano and banjo converged over simple melodies to create a richly textured yet free-floating sound. Although, at one point, Fleck described the experience as pleasantly terrifying, as far as I’m concerned, they might as well have been walking on water.

photo by Ayano Hisa

The set began with a couple of original pieces written by Fleck. The band was tight, the acoustics visceral, and the improvisations so compelling and unexpected that I found myself hanging on every note, only wishing I could peak around the corner to know what was coming next. After a bewildering ride through Roberts’ “A Servant of the People,” Marsalis and Jordon quietly exited the stage. Fleck and Roberts then played an intimate version of Scott Joplin’s classic “Maple Leaf Rag,” transporting the audience to a time when the banjo and piano were much more frequent interlocutors. Next came Fleck’s “Small Potatoes.” Afterwards, Roberts paused for a moment as he recalled listening to Fleck’s recordings for the first time and how struck he was with one tune in particular – the bluegrass song “Cheeseballs in Cowtown.” Now, I grew up on Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe, and just a few days ago The Earl Brothers were blaring from my radio. But I have never quite heard anything like what Roberts and Fleck did with “Cheeseballs.” In my humble opinion, and as counterintuitive as it may seem, the original pales in comparison to what they did with it at the SMF. It was an astonishing excavation of the bluesy roots of bluegrass music, something that’s always been there but rarely noticed by anyone but insiders. The train kept on rolling through uncharted territory as Fleck added his own unique touch to Roberts’ “Lullaby of Birdland.” The foursome ended the night with another original, “Prickly Pear,” and an encore performance. Another stellar SMF show. For the listeners’ sake, let just hope that the musical dialogue between Fleck and Roberts doesn’t end here.

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