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.”

Good ‘n’ Greasy at Motorco Music Hall with The Bad Plus

Duke Performances banners adorn the Motorco stage.

Duke Performances just keeps on bringing it. Amazing music all the time–and now, everywhere you turn. After a “normal” season opener in Nelson Music Room, and a hot gospel concert at Hayti, DP launched its mission to put jazz in appropriately-sized clubs in downtown Durham. This autumn of our content began September 21, with a smoking set by The Bad Plus in the Showroom at Motorco Music Hall, at the corner of funky and cool–Riggsbee and Geer–where street players roam and food trucks congregate. And, those Bad boys will be back tonight.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Reynolds Theater at Duke, where The Bad Plus nearly set the roof on fire with their re-working of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 2011. Reynolds is my second home. But there’s no doubt that a club stage, and a small audience (maybe 300) were better for this set of madly wonderful tunes, mostly from the band’s new album, Made Possible (official release next week; available at the show). Being so close to the musicians is thrilling–you get to see their facial expressions, and catch the tiny wordless communications among them that make this one of the tightest trios imaginable. The occasional ring of a beer bottle rolling on the concrete floor, the murmurs of drink orders in the back, the small ruffles of movement as drinkers came and went, just added to the textures of the music.

Hard to say, ever, what comes first, when music suddenly begins. Sometimes a melody from Ethan Iverson on the piano. There is always melody in these songs, and sometimes it is breath-catchingly beautiful. It may come and go, separate and modulate, interrupt itself for rhythmic bursts, but the sense of continuous melody underlying all imbues the listener with a kind of peacefulness, and a willingness to go with the whole of the giant adventuring sound wherever it will.

All three men write the music they play, and watching them, one quickly gets a sense of whose song is whose–the attitudes are different, even though the playing is united. The set opened with bassist Reid Anderson’s big sound “pound for pound,” moved into drummer Dave King’s “wolf out,” with its symphony of escalating rhythms, and on to Iverson’s exquisite “sing for a silver dollar,” a bundle of spangled shimmers over velvet bass, with an appearance by E.T. on the drum kit.

The Bad Plus, appearing at Durham’s Motorco Music Hall 9/21 and 9/22. L-R: Reid Anderson, bass; Ethan Iverson, piano; David King, drums. Photo courtesy of Duke Performances.

And so it went, from one honest, heartfelt, smart piece of music to the next. These guys have known each other a long time–they first met and played together in junior high school, outside Minneapolis, and formed this band twelve years ago. Together they seem to have incredible freedom to innovate, creating very sophisticated music with a stunning combination of force and delicacy. Maybe delicacy is not quite the word–there is nothing wispy, and even the tiniest sounds have firmness. At any rate, they get more delicious texture and color and range of sound out of three instruments than seems possible (those multiple microphones do help), and they do it with disarming humor and nice-guyness and sharp synchronicity. And, they can stop on a dime.

The Bad Plus’ drum kit reflected in one of Duke’s Steinways, onstage at Motorco, 9/21/12.

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