A prolific composer, Roberts has released twelve recordings as a leader of his own groups, and all have enjoyed critical acclaim and much success. He was the first to have his first three recordings reach number One on Billboard's traditional jazz chart.
Roberts is a very dedicated artist still in his mid-thirties, he has attained a level of achievement most artist aspire in a lifetime.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Marcus, Would you share with me the project you are currently involved with?
MARCUS ROBERTS: I have been doing a series of recordings for the past five years at Columbia records. This particular recording to be released on Tuesday is called "In Honor Of Duke". The record is a little different, it's all original music that I wrote for my trio to do, but it's all written and dedicated to Duke Ellington for the Ellington Centennial. When we speak of the jazz trio, typically that means you have a piano (Roberts) an upright bass, (Roland Guerin), Drummer (Jason Marsalis) that's the trio. We've been playing together since May 1995.At this point Both Guerin and Marsalis have done several recordings with me. What we wanted to achieve was to put out a record of pure music that yield with a very interesting new concept. In most traditional jazz trios the bass and drums typically play more of a subdued accompanied role to the piano. The piano is out front, the bass and drums just kind of keep the groove going and play very tastefully in a subordinate position and on occasion there is a drum or bass solo. The role traditionally in a jazz band is one of support that involves being a foundation for the band.
Now what I have decided to do given the imagination and talent of both guys is we've been working for some years on a concept that take issue with that. It doesn't say that the bass and drums should not and will not function in a supportive way, but the thing that is different is that this music is arranged so that they can have as much control of the actual direction of where the music goes as I have. In other words it's much more of an equal situation in terms of the amount of time that each musician is featured. The piano is not necessarily viewed as being the instrument, rather the way this music works is that each person, when they are soloing and even when they are not can freely dictate elements of the music that typically do not fall in content of what the bass or drummers do. That's the biggest thing about this record.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: This is quite different Marcus.
MARCUS ROBERTS: It makes the trio sound much more powerful. It gives it an added dimension that I don't think would exist without that type of an agenda being at the root of what we do.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: This newness allows each instrument to have it's own sound and distinction and a coming together.
MARCUS ROBERTS: Yes, as an example there's a song called "On Two Separate Occasion" and we have what we call in jazz music " a break" which is a point in the music where everything stops, in pop music I guess they call it a break down (laughter), In jazz terminology a break means everything stops on one individual. Now, when you have a break, the tempo or speed of the song does not change. But what I've done in this particular piece which involves a series of breaks where each person plays at the first break (I take it at the very beginning) with second break taken by Jason (drums) and a break for Roland (bass) it's cycled this way. The assumption here is when you're in your break you can actually change tempos and set up the tempo that the next person is going to play at. During Jason's break he can slow it down so that Roland then has to play a new tempo, this would not be based on how Roland would play by Jason's solo, and Roland could do the same thing for my entrance. We have visual cues where we can very freely slow down and speed up and that's a huge thing, just in terms of how the mood of the music can change.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Many times when attending a jazz concert you want to hear more from the drummer or bass player rather than a brief solo.
MARCUS ROBERTS: Yes, that's right just in terms of a production and presentation, your making it a bit more excitable to people. They can see more of what everyone can do. I think it gives more people to latch on to and more to compare and take home after the experience.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Tell me about some of your earlier experience in music, What are some things that spark your interest in jazz?
MARCUS ROBERTS: I was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1963. I'm 36 now. I started playing the piano at 8 and my earliest training (between 8-12) was playing in church. I was self taught. I played in church until the age of 12 then I started taking regular piano lessons.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Were you trained in Classical music?
MARCUS ROBERTS: I studied classical music until I left Florida State University.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: When did you know you really wanted to be a jazz pianist?
MARCUS ROBERTS: I knew that at 13,I had a real personal relationship with music, it was very comfortable to explore it. Classical music I liked it, I certainly respected, it but I did not feel as much of a natural connection to playing publicly. What I'd like to do at this point is to take things I learned from classical music and other sources, put it in a jazz content. In other words, you put it in a content where swinging and playing the blues are the 2 principals that represent the foundation of what you're doing
JAZZREVIEW.COM: I'm a classical music fan as well as jazz, do you think there is a connection between the two types of music? Sometimes I hear a jazz musician play a song and I can feel the classical music in it.
MARCUS ROBERTS: A lot of jazz draws from a combination of cultural expression, a rhythm of music which primarily comes from a lot of African influence. Then there's ragtime music with Scott Joplin and all the other things piece together to produce a sort of freeness of what we think of jazz. A lot of those things come from European music with a combination of them to produce this very democratic perspective where you have a merging of individual identified inside of a group content. I think that's what makes the music such a powerful force.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: What's been some of your greatest inspirations and influences, what was it about them, that made such an impression on you?
MARCUS ROBERTS: There's a lot of them, The first I remember was my mother had an Aretha Franklin record called "Amazing Grace", she use to play the record every morning at 5:30. The type of real soul you hear in a lot of the gospel music. A lot in the area of Jacksonville. I think as I went into the jazz area I found it interesting that Bessie Smith sounded a lot like Mahalia, or the same type of voice and as it turns out Mahalia studied Bessie Smith even though she had not chose to sing that type of music and refused to sing it, but was very influenced. For me I have always loved music. John Coltrane has had a profound impact on what we do, the music of Thelonious Monk, Obviously Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong who came up with a lot of the vocabulary, a lot of the universal vocabulary, on and one Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. There's a lot of people.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: What is your favorite part of your job? Is it composing, performing, recording or a combination of the three.
MARCUS ROBERTS: Performing probably would be first, because this is where a lot of the inspiration for recording and composing comes from. When you play in front of people, you get spiritual energy from the audience and having to reach deep so you can present them quality and integrity.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: What type of toll does touring have on you? I'm sure there's a certain amount of unknown.
MARCUS ROBERTS: I think just like any other part of your life, there's high and low's to it. It's a different life in some ways, but at the same time the rewards of it far out way the obstacles. Like anything else you have to stop and slow down. There are times when you want to focus on other things. This year I would like to focus on composition. You try to figure out with each year the basic objectives you're looking to meet.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Are there specific goals in mind you want to achieve?
MARCUS ROBERTS: Yes, I've been interested in laying out a record of all the formats that I'm interested in covering over the next 20 - 30 years. For example I've done Solo Piano for Joplin in classical, Joplin in original music, the trio records for Columbia, " Time and Circumstance", "In Honor Of Duke", and "Gershwin for Lovers", These are the trio recordings. Then there's a record with Piano and Orchestra "Portrait In Blue" a 8-10 piece orchestra. In fact there are 4 different formats I plan to develop over the next 20-30 years. So when talking about goals, one goal is to solidify each format overtime. And have a body of work in each format that is clear and represents a concept of presenting the power of the piano in all the different formats.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: That's really planning, the 4 different formats will keep you busy, but I think it's going to be more than 30 years.
MARCUS ROBERTS: It can be 2 or 3 hundred years (laughter) especially when you add in each format what we call a standard tunes. It's what everyone plays, it's where the level is, it's your own philosophy that you put into music, I want to point out that musicians you play with, you want to write music that Ellington taught us, you want to write music that fit their personality, their ability, and talents. The year that I spent playing with Wynton Marsalis showed me one of the very great gifts that he has. He knew how to write for the personalities. That's very important.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Marcus, That sounds like what you've done with the trio..
MARCUS ROBERTS: yes, I feel very good about this record in that specific regard. It was written for these 2 gentlemen and I think when you hear it. You'll find it has a very very relaxed way that the music comes out.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: How much of making it in the music business is raw talent vs. hard work and dedication?
MARCUS ROBERTS: It depends which facet of the music business you're interested in. Raw talent in my mind is probably the smallest amount because all that it really means is you have aptitude that permits you to learn things quicker. If you take John Coltrane for example in his high school class he was not considered the most talented musician. If you listen to early records with him and Miles Davis, it's obvious that he was not at that time as technically proficient as say Sonny Rollins or Charlie Parker. But the thing about Coltrane he was getting better every day and he was practicing 4 to 5 hours a day, and by the time you get to the Giant step and to other things, he's like light years ahead of everyone. It's accumulative, every day you put in gets better. Duke was like that to, every decade Duke Ellington music was more complex, more growth spreading out like a big old tree (laughter) just expanding. By the time bebop came along, Duke was not phased by that, He said, "Oh that's what they're doing", he incorporated the 15 % he needed, he kept going. Then at the point of the Avant Garde movement, he said, "This is interesting", he added a little bit of that until the next. By the time you really have to sit down to look at all that music he wrote you are talking literally 50 years of works, hundreds of CDs and at least 100 of them are legendary. We have a lot to study from what he laid out for us. Certainly a lot for us to check out.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Do you think that more records companies are putting more money into marketing of jazz records and allowing the artistic freedom the musicians need?
MARCUS ROBERTS: No, I don't think so, they should but as an artist you can't concern yourself with these things. What's most important is for you to reach out to the public that comes out to see you on stage. And you have to make sure that when they come to see you play, the 2 hours they spent getting ready, picking the right dress and all the other stuff. When they leave they feel uplifted and know that this was a worth while investment. To me this is the basis of your career.I think record labels change so often, one year you're with one and the next year you're with another, it's almost like getting married and divorce. (laughter) But the important part of the music business is that at no time are your principals, artistic character or integrity sacrificed. This is the key. People know when they are hearing something great, They know.This is something I can feel and they never forget it.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: What advice would you tell something wanting to make a career of music?
MARCUS ROBERTS: I would suggest that they think long and hard about that because there are no guarantees and secondly you have to ask yourself What are you really looking for? Are you looking to actually to be a star or celebrity or are you interested in the gift? For those interested in being a celebrity that's more about personality and image then actual artistic content. So a lot of people who have a high level of artistic content will not become a celebrity. There are those people who for example, Wynton who's able to do both things, to be a super star. It just happened so I think that he's a good example at least to me of some one who is able to keep his artistic agenda pure while at the same enjoying tremendous public acclaim.
Roberts proves he's one of the most vastly appreciated pianist on today's jazz scene and is an example of an artist who is able to be a super star and enjoy tremendous public acclaim.
Marcus Roberts celebrates Duke's Centennial with original music inspired by Ellington and performed with the piano trio.