Seamless Join: JazzGrass with Bela Fleck and The Marcus Roberts Trio

Bela Fleck, photo courtesy Duke Performances.

Duke Performances brought a jazz concert to a right-sized community venue again on November 8, when the  Carolina Theatre hosted the fabulous quartet of  Bela Fleck and The Marcus Roberts Trio. The main floor was full, and the crowd flowed up into the second balcony to hear banjo master Fleck jamming a delicious, lyrical patois of jazzgrass with pianist Roberts, bassist Rodney Jordan, and percussionist Jason Marsalis.

The jazz band members and Fleck encountered each other first at the Savannah Music Festival. After a jam session, they decided to try to make some music together–to try for a real, collaborative mixing from the wells of jazz and bluegrass. The quartet’s first performance together at the 2011 Savannah Music Festival re-proved the theory that not much separates great improvisatory musicians.

The show at the Carolina was very much like the first one, crackling with joyous energy. Much of the unbroken (nearly 2 hour!) set was electrifying, as the musicians romped through classics and new compositions completely in sync with each other. Roberts has great rapidity and clarity, and his fingers know all the jazz piano greats of the 20th century. His emotional range includes the silvery, spacious delicacy of Teddy Wilson, and the blistering stride of Errol Garner. Sometimes Fleck’s banjo sounded like a harpsichord chattering to a pianoforte. Sometimes it rang out like a horn. Other times, it had the sound of a plucked jazz guitar (I thought of Joe Pass). A duet between banjo and bass fluttered like delicate lace in a breeze. Whether all four instruments were active, one only, or any of the possible combinations were at play, the musicians were deeply attentive to each other, which gave music already cheerful a charge of bubbling gaiety.

Marcus Roberts, photo Duke Performances.

One goes to a concert not just to hear the music, but to see its makers do their magic. This one presented an unusual sight. Pianist Roberts is blind (he studied music at Ray Charles’ alma mater), and he was seated with his back to the drummer and bassist (and to me, in house left), who would sometimes have been able to see his hands. Fleck sat on a raised chair close to the left end of the piano, but even he had to read the subtle cues in Robert’s body language along with the cues within the music, in addition to those flashing digits. It was amazing to observe. More fun to watch, however, was the elegant drumming by the long, lean, handsomely suited Jason Marsalis. Even while keeping multiple complex rhythms going simultaneously, he makes textures as much as beats. He’s very controlled, very nuanced—and sometimes very mischievous. He and bassist Jordan got into an escalating challenge of interrupted rhythm patterns during their riff together, until it resolved into laughter and all the players sweeping back in, across the entirely imaginary divide between virtuoso musicians of whatever stripe.


Interviews with Roberts and Fleck on DP’s blog, The Thread.

Stylishly made and informative video made in support of the 2012 recording, Across the Imaginary Divide.

Listen here to a few cuts of Across the Imaginary Divide.

This amateur video gives a look at Marsalis’ elegant drumming.

Hour-long recording from the quartet’s first performance together at the 2011 Savannah Music Festival. There’s a little announcer talk at the top, but then it commences to SWING. Stay with it through the announcer break at 35 minutes–first up is a sparkling piano/banjo duet on “Maple Leaf Rag.”

Mariinsky in Chapel Hill, part 2

Two evenings with St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Orchestra left me punchy drunk on music. It’s easy to forget, when one lives mainly on small group and solo performances, how exhilarating the ride can be with a huge orchestra, a fascinating conductor and excellent soloists. Each of the Carolina Performing Arts programs was well constructed; together they were brilliant. Both included new works from 2012. Both included pieces by Dmitri

Jeffrey Scott Detwiler plays Shostakovich in Europe Central, 2008. Photo copyright Jason Fagg, used by permission of the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern.

Shostakovich, which occupied a middle ground between old and new—work that sounds “modern” but that isn’t really radical. Monday night’s big piece, played in memory of the late William C. “Bill” Friday, long-time president of the consolidated University of North Carolina, was Richard Strauss’ 1898 Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life). On Tuesday, it was, of course, Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 The Rite of Spring—source and subject of this year’s The Rite of Spring at 100 series and the associated academic conference, Reassessing The Rite.

Monday’s opener, Matthias Pintscher’s Chute d’Etoiles (described here) fascinated me aurally and as an indicator of artistic conditions. I would very much like to hear it again—but this music is like so much contemporary visual art being made today. It’s made for the museum, for the exhibition hall, for the concert auditorium. And, it’s made for a very small number of people out of a small audience—it’s not the kind of thing you want to take home and listen to repeatedly. You certainly wouldn’t be whistling a few bars. It’s difficult, like the Anselm Kiefer construction for which it is named. It’s not the people’s music, and in that sense, was the piece most analogous to the Stravinsky in the two nights’ programs. Its difference in method and purpose from the Strauss is enormous, and the clash between them was quite exciting—even with Shostakovich there in the middle, buffering the encounter. When the Strauss isn’t syruping off into sentiment, it does make a fitting honor to Dr. Friday, who really was a hero: a builder and rescuer. Yes, I cried a little at the music’s sweetness and valor, but more from wondering if the age of heroes is past, like the grand sweeping strains of the Belle Epoque.

Tuesday’s new work, Cleopatra and the Snake, by Rodion Shchedrin, struck me as far more predictable and…old-fashioned. Its narrative flow, with some wonderful twinings and swoopings, is punched up by rhythmic martial passages and the whole provides a clear path for the vocalizing of the story, but nothing in it surprised. Soprano Ekaterina Goncharova’s pliant clear voice was beautiful throughout, even in the most contorted passages. The text was in Russian (Boris Pasternak, based on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra), but Cleopatra’s anger, pride, suffering and determination came clearly through the voice. It was the feeling, the passion, which made it lead well into The Rite.

The Rite. Huge, glorious, blood-racing. The bassoon! The complex massings and overlays of sound. The freaking percussion—really great. It seemed to me that conductor Valery Gergiev had the orchestra zipping along a little fast at first, and things were somehow both too neat and too blurry, but mid-way he slowed the tempo and all the strands came into better focus. The ending was fantastic: frantic–diminishing energy–renewed frantic effort—collapse. I was danced to death in my seat.

As for Shostakovich, placing him in juxtaposition to these other composers gave me a fresh appreciation for him. I could have left happy after the galloping, almost jubilant, conclusion to his Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 54 (1939), which opened the program on Tuesday. His Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 35 (1933) played on Monday was completely delightful following the Pintscher. Denis Matsuev brought out an unsuspected latent lyricism, and a bubbling joy in the jazzy sections, with his flashy technique. At times, he seemed to be literally snatching the music out of the piano, flinging it into our greedy ears.

Denis Matsuev played the daylights out of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 on Oct. 29. Photo: Sony Music Entertainment/CPA.

SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER, still funny after all these years, at Deep Dish

Brian Fisher and Amelia Sciandra in “She Stoops to Conquer.” Photo by Jonathan Young.

This article first appeared in print in the Indy Week, 10/31/12, with the headline “Dirty old classics.”

One of the many great things about the Triangle theater scene’s width and depth is the range of plays it is now possible to see without going very far. We can contemplate new plays with the e-ink still wet, those only recently set loose on the world, familiar pieces from our lifetimes and great works from the last couple of millennia. This past weekend saw the openings of two classics—one from 1773, one a new version of a 1673 work. The 18th-century piece, Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, is playing, for added piquancy, at Deep Dish‘s very 20th-century space in University Mall.

Goldsmith was quite a character himself. Born in Ireland, son of an Anglican minister, he was not a brilliant scholar, yet lived by his wits. An acute observer of people, he became a prolific writer in several forms and achieved success in London, where he was admired by so important an arbiter as Dr. Johnson. He made money, but between generosity and profligacy, he left the world as least as poor as he entered it. But a year before he died, She Stoops to Conquer premiered in London to great acclaim.

Thanks to Goldsmith’s observant eye for timeless human foible and his kind-hearted appreciation for the ridiculous, She Stoops to Conquerremains a very amusing play about love and how to get it. Jane Austen fans will immediately appreciate the dryly comic tone (Austen read Goldsmith; the “fine eyes” in her early novel Pride and Prejudice may be a borrowing from this play).

Tony Lea directs for Deep Dish with fairly broad strokes but refrains from burlesque. Led by Marcia Edmundson as Mrs. Hardcastle, the cast quickly moved from nervous to sparkling and ready to frolic on opening night, although scene changes were a bit clunky. A charming aspect of the play is its many asides, and all the players seem to relish these, rolling their eyes and speaking directly to the audience, which is barely off the stage in Deep Dish’s tiny space. Front row, be warned: You will be drawn into the action.

The producers opted for period costume, which is carried off well with David Serxner’s designs. Kate Hardcastle—she who stoops—has lovely gowns for both her daughter-of-the-house role and her barmaid disguise, and Amelia Sciandra wears them well, sashaying in her wide skirts without knocking over the furniture in Kenneth Rowland’s functional if slightly underdressed set. It is great fun to see her outwitting the silly young gentleman who avoids his equals while fawning on lower-class women. That gentleman, Marlow, is dashingly dressed and played by Brian Fisher; he rather overshadows his sidekick, Brett Bolton as Hastings, who is there conducting his own romantic maneuvers with Rebecca Vaisey’s coy Constance. Jeffrey Vizcaino plays the key provocateur, young Tony Lumpkin, with considerable energy; as the evening went on, he gained confidence and rose to the levity of his part. The show is long, but it hews always to the mandate to “leave them laughing.”

The production continues through Nov. 17.

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