As of Now is an ongoing Jazz at Lincoln Center program that couples an established jazz composer with a younger, rising star. Previous pairings have included Danilo Perez with legend Randy Weston, Eric Reed with veteran Sam Rivers, and Toshiko Akiyoshi with new sensation Maria Schneider. Next month, As of Now presents two astonishing keyboardists‹Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra alumnus Marcus Roberts with up-and-coming talent Jason Moran‹who are commissioned to present two world premiere pieces at their April 22 and 23 performances at Frederick P. Rose Hall. These exciting shows are sponsored by Samsung Electronics America Inc.
"For any commissioned work, I want to use it as an opportunity to advance the native concepts within the group I'm writing for," explains Roberts. "When the trio I've been working with premieres these new pieces, we will be a month shy of being together ten years. There's certain concepts we've worked with over that time, one of them being the roles of the bass and drums being shifted so that they're more out front than in the traditional trio setting. I try to write music that gives them more flexibility in how they can dictate the improvisational direction that the music takes. It's not just all driven by piano. And, of course, we always want to draw from folk sources, be it the church or some other cultural situation, a poet, et cetera."
It took Roberts a long time to get to where he is today. He began teaching himself to play piano at age eight, three years after losing his eyesight. He studied classical piano at Florida State University with Leonidus Lipovetsky, during which time he won many awards and competitions, and then left to tour with the Wynton Marsalis Quartet for six years.
"The first thing about Wynton," states Roberts, of Jazz at Lincoln Center's artistic director, "is that he is someone who is always thinking about several aspects of something. When we first started, we were a quartet. But he didn't really want to play in a quartet. He had been comfortable playing with his brother Branford in a quintet setting. Going from not really wanting to do it but turning that into a strength, and then building upon it, adding voices until he ended up with a very powerful septet‹one of the gifts Wynton has is to see opportunity inside any setting. That's why he's been able to build and expand to the point where something no one could have envisioned is actually possible," Roberts says, referring to Jazz at Lincoln Center's new state-of-the-art home on Columbus Circle.
Roberts went on to play on 11 of Marsalis's solo records. He signed his first recording contract in 1988 and subsequently enjoyed the distinction of being the first jazz musician to have his first three recordings reach No. 1 on Billboard's traditional jazz chart. The pianist has released more than a dozen acclaimed recordings and has toured the U.S. and Europe both as a soloist and with his septet and trio, the latter of which includes drummer Jason Marsalis and bassist Roland Guerin. The Marcus Roberts Trio is active in jazz education and regularly teaches master classes and workshops for students from the elementary school level to college jazz ensembles. Roberts was also Artist-in-Residence for the 2002 Winter Olympics.
He and the trio will soon be releasing their most recent CD, New Orleans Meets Harlem, which they completed in March 2004. That recording features Roberts' new arrangements of works by five pianists‹Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk‹plus a great Marcus Roberts original titled "Searching for the Blues."
According to Roberts, the goals for creating a CD are quite similar to the ones he follows when writing a commissioned piece. "You want it to be accessible to people," he says, "meaning they don't need a dictionary to understand what they're hearing. But then artistically, you want to take a step, so that your group can break through a threshold. The other thing that a commissioned work can do is to make propositions for future musicians who decide to take components of it in directions that you didn't think of."
One such musician who promises to defy expectations is Moran who began studying the piano at age six in his native Texas. He longed to quit until he first experienced the sounds of jazz legend Thelonius Monk. It was this discovery that renewed the young man's interest in music and established an early role model in his creative development. He went to the Houston High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, then moved to New York City and studied with pianist Jaki Byard for four years before being hired by saxophonist Greg Osby. He and Osby have been making music ever since.
Moran has also performed as a sideman with Cassandra Wilson, Joe Lovano, Don Byron, Steve Coleman, Lee Konitz, Von Freeman, Ravi Coltrane, and Stefon Harris. The Jazz Journalists Association awarded Moran its "Up-n-Coming Jazz Musician" citation in 2003. He topped the Down Beat Critics Poll in three categories in 2003 and 2004‹"Rising Star Jazz Artist," "Rising Star Pianist," and "Rising Star Composer." His sixth release on Blue Note, Same Mother, has just been released.
"I don't want to be the average musician," Moran proudly declares. "I want to be the man who, 50, 60, 100 years from now, you're like, 'Man, he was really on another level. He was trying to come at it from a different perspective.'" Moran also challenges his fellow players to be unpredictable, saying, "I want to keep the musicians on their toes, they want to keep me on my toes. We don't want people to know all our moves." For As of Now, Moran's performance will include an African song form called the ring shout, based on dance, praise, rhythm, and song.
Roberts looks forward to his performances with Moran next month. "I think he's getting a lot of attention," he says of the younger musician. "Hopefully, this will allow his group to make the next step. The more there's a bridge between generations in this music, and the more there's a feeling of solidarity and community among musicians, I think it will be easier for the public to latch on to what we're doing. If everything remains compartmentalized and niche-oriented, the public doesn't bond to the music the way they would if they perceived more of a melting pot."
Scott H. Thompson is Assistant Director-Public Relations for Jazz at Lincoln Center. Special thanks to Jazz at Lincoln Center intern Carter Van Pelt for his Marcus Roberts interview.