Marcus Roberts Trio

Petrushka [1947 version]
On the Town – Three Dance Episodes
Rhapsody in Blue [with additional improvisation]

Marcus Roberts Trio [Marcus Roberts (piano), Roland Guerin (bass) & Jason Marsalis (drums)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Robert Spano

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 14 August, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This concert should have been a roaring success: the Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra together with Grammy-nominated soloists playing the music of their compatriots – with live TV and radio coverage. So what went wrong?

From the start Robert Spano never seemed in control; throughout there were problems of balance: for example, in Petrushka, the ‘Danse Russe’, the trumpets’ repeated high Gs overwhelmed the sparkling winds’ playful dance. In the Moor’s Cell tableau a missed cue by the cymbals and bass drum put the two percussionists behind and later in the same scene over-anxious trumpet and side drum players appeared to try to make amends by speeding-up, divorcing the solo from the martial character that is its raison d’être. A noisy audience armed with mobile telephones and chest-coughs did little to improve what, on the whole, appeared to be an under-rehearsed performance.

The ‘Three Dance Episodes’ from Leonard Bernstein’s musical “On the Town fared better, with Spano more at home with the jazz-influenced style of this Broadway hit. However, the second number, ‘Lonely Town’, tended to drift with an unconvincing trumpet solo from a performer who did not appear as happy with the genre as the conductor. Indeed the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra as a whole did not seem to be comfortable. The musicians’ playing was accurate if no more.

“George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is one of the most well-known and loved pieces in American music” – so Marcus Roberts’s programme note declared. It goes on: “As a trio, we have performed this work with symphony orchestras all around the world”. My simple question is: “why?”. In short this is a ‘mash-up’ of a seminal jazz-influenced ‘concerto’ played by a perfectly good jazz trio, the sum of the parts being decidedly less than the constituent pieces. On a point of pure logistics I have to ask why a piece that required a ten-minute scene change was not programmed immediately after the interval.

The orchestral arrangement was the ‘usual’ one when the piece is performed with a symphony orchestra as distinct from the Paul Whiteman jazz-band scoring, both made by Ferde Grofé, Whiteman’s resident arranger. After the clarinet glissando and opening orchestral bars that firmly set the work in the smoky clubs and gin-joints of the 1920s, Roberts and his crew ‘cut and pasted’ the listener to the soundworld of ‘twenty-first century’ jazz without a blink. Why? Would we accept a Beethoven concerto with a cadenza in the style of Bartók? Of course not, so how can it be acceptable to do it here simply because Rhapsody in Blue was written by a composer of what we now refer to as ‘jazz standards’?

There are plenty of arrangements, crossover pieces, call them what you will, that stand the test of time. Gil Evans, with Miles Davis, in his early 1960 recording “Sketches of Spain” takes the music of Rodrigo and Manuel de Falla as a starting point for a musical adventure. Dave Grusin re-wrote “West Side Story” in 1997 using the original as a springboard for musical development. Even Jacques Loussier in his reworking of Bach’s music brings something new to the table; Marcus Roberts and his two colleagues however do not.

Starting from a point of such negativity the component parts performed well. The orchestra was more settled in this work, despite the unusual extemporisation. The trio, in isolation, is an accomplished group with each member having a distinguished jazz pedigree (Roberts played with Wynton Marsalis’s band in the 1980s and Jason Marsalis, Wynton’s brother, plays drums in the trio).

Known as ‘Rhythm Changes’ the chords of Gershwin’s ‘I got Rhythm’, a hit from the 1930 musical “Girl Crazy”, are as important building-blocks to a jazz musician as the major and minor scales are to a classical performer. From Jobim’s “One Note Samba” to the theme from “The Muppet Show”, these chord progressions are a challenge to any would-be performer: take these very simple building-blocks and see how far they can go. As an encore, the trio gave ‘I got rhythm’ an unexceptional outing. The free improvisation could have been something extraordinary but instead was used to show-off (badly) the skills of each performer through solos with very little musical development. All in all this was a disappointing concert.

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