When jazz pianist Marcus "The J-Master" Roberts released his second album, Deep In The Shed in 1990, the New York Times called it "the most important jazz album of the last ten years." Now, Roberts performs this inspirational work for the first time in The House of Swing, at Jazz at Lincoln Center, February 1 and February 2 in The Allen Room.nd February 2 in The Allen Room.
Roberts' program, Deep in the Shed‹A Blues Suite, is a cycle of six blues works passing through all twelve keys over the course of the show. "The concept," explains Roberts, "is that I wanted to write a blues cycle that would modulate in fourths, not a blues cycle with one view of the blues." Roberts explains that listeners often limit their conception of the blues to Mississippi. "Ellington wrote blues, Monk wrote blues, Coltrane wrote blues, and Sidney Bechet wrote blues," Roberts says. "There's a whole different range of blues approaches that have been documented in American music, so I'm interested in exploring and expanding on a lot of those concepts."
Born in 1963 in Jacksonville, Florida, Roberts lost his vision to cataracts at the age of four. His mother was a gospel singer who lost her eyesight as a teenager, and his father was a longshoreman. "I never felt that because I was without sight that people owed me something or were obliged to cater to my situation, because if you talk to any person long enough, you will find that their life dealt out many unexpected circumstances that they had to deal with," Roberts confides. He began playing piano at age five, thinking that "this, apparently, is for me. I could work on this all day."
Roberts has a long history of work with Wynton Marsalis, Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. In 1985, at the age 21, he joined Marsalis's band, touring and recording with them for the next six years. Today, Roberts is at the top of his game. Seeing him perform Deep In The Shed‹A Blues Suite live in The Allen Room will shake your soul to its foundation.
Roberts' suite starts with "The Governor," which turns the form of the 12-bar blues on its head. The slow and sensual "Mysterious Interlude" follows. Third is "E. Dankworth," fast and furious featuring plentiful trumpet. The fourth tune, "Spiritual Awakening," is slow and somber in a minor key. Roberts says it's about "old people and their perspective that has taken them 90 years to figure out‹and they're just teaching the young people." "Nebuchadnezzar," the penultimate song in the cycle, has a Middle-Eastern flavoring in its melody. It is serene, exotic and quiet. The final piece, "Deep In The Shed" deals with, in the words of Roberts "musicians doing what we do. We practice all the time and we have to get deep in the shed to have a profound inspirational moment. It requires a lot of investment."
Ah, so that's what "Deep In The Shed" is about: woodshedding, a jazz term for practicing hard. "It's even deeper than practicing hard," Roberts explains. "You're going deep into it, kind of like Sonny Rollins practicing on the bridge. It's a deep searching state. You're reaching for this elusive grail of understanding. Some musicians have even left the scene so they could be completely isolated [in their search]. So it's not just about practicing, it's really about a deep searching for a state of consciousness that will allow you to reach the subconscious plane when you play publicly."
Much of Roberts' inspiration goes back to the church where his mother was a gospel singer. Roberts describes her as his first and most important teacher. "She always taught me that if people don't feel anything when you play, then there's no point. You need to mean what you're playing. As musicians, we use intellectual methods and physical coordination as tools to express the spiritual."
Speaking about his inspiration for the cycle, Roberts points to Mahalia Jackson as an influence for the fourth song, "Spiritual Awakening." Roberts says he tries to have a "folk basis" or "soulful foundation" to his music that, once adapted, can be wedded to an intellectual concept, in the spirit of John Coltrane. Roberts explains that Coltrane "would have a soulful view of something that would indicate a perspective, then he would top off that church or modal base with complex chord structures or interactions with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones." Roberts says that finding "that thread of eternal folk sound" is always an aspiration, which he juggles with the imperative of constantly seeking different ways to balance the sound and voicing of his instrument, the piano.
For tickets to Deep In The Shed‹A Blues Suite on February 1 and February 2 in The Allen Room, featuring the Marcus Roberts Trio and a swinging horn section, call CenterCharge at (212) 721-6500 or visit www.jalc.org. And don't miss pianists Marcus Roberts, Aaron Diehl and Jonathan Batiste for Rags, Strides and Stomps, also in The Allen Room, March 28 and 29.
Scott H. Thompson is Assistant Director for Public Relations at Jazz at Lincoln Center.