Marcus Roberts, "the greatest American musician" you haven't heard of, joins Grand Rapids Symphony

At age 5, pianist Marcus Roberts lost his sight, a victim of cataracts and glaucoma. 

While attending Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, a school that also helped launch the career of legendary recording artist Ray Charles, Roberts began playing piano. 

Ray Charles, of course, is a household name. Marcus Roberts, on the other hand, is known mostly in jazz circles, leading trumpeter Wynton Marsalis to call him “the greatest American musician most people have never heard of.” 

You can hear Marcus Roberts yourself as soloist in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” at the Grand Rapids Symphony’s “Symphony with Soul” at 8 p.m. Saturday, February 27, in DeVos Performance Hall. Tickets start at $18.

The jazz pianist who came up through the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra led by Marsalis joins the Grand Rapids Symphony along with the Marcus Roberts Trio for the 15th annual celebration of multicultural music. 

David Lockington, who launched “Symphony with Soul” in 2001 during his tenure as music director of the orchestra, returns to the Grand Rapids Symphony podium for the first time since he stepped down from the post in May 2015 to become music director laureate. 

The evening of jazz and blues, gospel and spirituals features the Grand Rapids Symphony Community Chorus, directed by Duane Shields Davis. The program opens with the rousing “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” and concludes with Davis’ original work, “The Call,” for chorus and orchestra, joined by Roberts as piano soloist. 

 Roberts and his trio, which includes Wynton Marsalis’ younger brother, Jason Marsalis, on drums, will be part of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s annual, community-wide concert, preceded by “Celebration of Soul,” a gala dinner celebrating diversity and inclusion initiatives in West Michigan. 

Marcus Roberts, who has been profiled on “60 Minutes,” who served as artist-in-residence for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City and who appeared on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” in 1987, is known for developing an entirely new approach to jazz trio performance. Roberts’ version of “Rhapsody in Blue” features his trio in a performance with three musicians sharing the spotlight equally. 

“Hopefully, what the people will be able to hear is that the bass and drums have equal position to the piano in the group,” Roberts recently told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, prior to appearing last week in a four-night engagement. “That, I think, gives the group a lot more variety, and a lot more nuance,” said Roberts, who is an assistant professor of jazz studies at Florida State University.

Roberts, age 52, grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, where his mother’s love of singing and the music of the local church left a lasting impact on him. After losing his sight at age 5, he began teaching himself to play piano and had his first formal lesson at age 12. Roberts later went on to study classical piano at Florida State University with Leonidas Lipovetsky. Today, he mentors young musicians as an assistant professor of jazz at his alma mater. 

Roberts got his first big break in 1985 as pianist in Wynton Marsalis’ quartet, which had been a quintet before the departure of Marsalis’ saxophone-playing brother, Branford, and pianist Kenny Kirkland. 

In 1987, Roberts became the first winner of the inaugural Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, an annual competition that focuses on a different instrument every year. But among the competitions he’s won and awards he’s received, the one that’s most meaningful for Roberts personally is the Helen Keller Award for Personal Achievement. 

Roberts has earned praise for albums including “The Truth Is Spoken Here,” released in 1988, and two years later with “Alone with Three Giants,” featuring solo performances of works by Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Jelly Roll Morton. His discography also includes albums for RCA Novus, Columbia and other labels. 

Roberts’ latest project is an EP recording titled “Race for the White House” featuring songs meant to capture the personalities of four of the current candidates for U.S. president. 

“You can’t turn on the television without some daily update on these various candidates, and there just seems to be such a difference in every character,” Roberts said recently in an interview with the New Yorker. “And, of course, I’m not really looking at these people. I’m just listening to them, and they all have different personalities, temperaments, voice, rate of speed. It dawned on me that it would be interesting to try to capture a little bit of that in music.” 

Roberts’ original material is titled “It’s My Turn” for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, “I Did Chop Down that Cherry Tree” for Republican hopeful Ben Carson, “Making America Great Again (All By Myself)” is the title of his piece for GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, and “Feel the Bern” is the name of his song for Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders. 

Jazz musicians and politicians have one thing in common: They make stuff up as they go along, Roberts said. 

“We’re kind of a lot like these candidates when they’re at these town halls. When they’re being interviewed, people ask you all kinds of crazy stuff, and you’ve got to think quick on your feet,” Roberts told the New Yorker. “So I thought it would be kind of cool to try to write some music that would in some way describe these personalities.”  

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 07:00
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