Few three-piece units approach performance in a manner similar to the Marcus Roberts Trio, whose brilliance was consistently displayed throughout a superb two-set program last Friday at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
The best parallel to this group would be the famed Oscar Peterson Trio of the ’50s and ’60s, which was more a cooperative venture than the standard piano/bass/drums-combo, where the keyboard dominates almost every piece, and the rhythm section has a secondary role except for an occasional solo or two.
Roberts, bassist Rodney “swing” Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis operate as musical equals. Sometimes Jordan’s solos came at the beginning and in the middle of pieces. Marsalis’ got more featured moments during the first set alone than many drummers in any band get though an entire night.
In addition to being outstanding accompanists, Jordan and Marsalis (who’s been playing with Roberts since 1995) repeatedly executed daring, imaginative solos, and were just as impressive complementing or propelling the ensemble.
The program was billed as a celebration of the compositions from Thelonious Monk and John Coltane, but the 70-plus minute opening set also included pieces from Gershwin and Porter.
The trio played “I Got Rhythm” in a brisk tempo, with Roberts’ adept phrases nicely contrasted by Jordan’s shifting bass lines and Marsalis’ spry rhythms. “The Man I Love” wasn’t the poignant ballad immortalized by Billie Holiday, but instead a delightful Roberts’ romp, topped by a dazzling Marsalis’ drum foray.
The opener “Blue Monk” contained the first of many memorable bass interludes from Jordan. Then came a fluid melodic rendition from Roberts, followed by a disciplined, powerful solo, then the trio’s stirring unison conclusion.
Surprisingly, they didn’t do more familiar Monk pieces like “Straight No Chaser” or “Round Midnight.” Instead, they chose such tunes as “Blues Five Spot (aka “Five Spot Blues”), and the first set finale “Bye-Ya.” It featured Roberts’ flashiest solo, more expressive answering bass playing from Jordan, and Marsalis’ dynamic wrap done mainly on cymbals, plus a little exclamation point from the bass drum.
The second set was a poignant journey through Coltrane’s 1964 album “Crescent,” an album that features all Coltrane compositions, and is considered by some his most somber work. They covered the songs in the LP’s identical order, with Roberts offering dense, layered solos on “Crescent” and “Wise One,” then shifting the mood to a lighter, playful repeatedly executed one on “Bessie’s Blues.
These three pieces represented his finest all-round playing. Roberts’ mixed animated, fiery sections with softer, lighter ones, interspersed jagged, rapid-fire phrases with lighter rhythms, and fully conveyed the artistic mastery of – and spiritual force within – Coltrane’s music.
The final two songs not only contained masterful work from Roberts, but also gave Jordan and Marsalis’ exciting solos. Roberts was impressive with both the bow and pizzicato on “Lonnie’s Lament,” while Marsalis showed on “The Drum Thing” he understood Max Roach’s famous mandate that every solo should “tell a story.” He didn’t depend on speed or volume for effectiveness, and he used the entire kit in another stunning show of rhythmic immediacy and authority.
The Marcus Roberts Trio certainly gave Monk and Coltrane’s music the rousing tribute it deserved, while also reaffirming that they belong in the upper echelon of contemporary (in the very best sense of that term) jazz groups.