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Marcus Roberts

The Joy of Joplin (Sony Classical). Review by David Lee Simmons

Marcus Roberts

The Joy of Joplin

Sony Classical

Marcus Roberts, arguably the preeminent contemporary jazz pianist, has spent much of his remarkable career of reinterpreting some of the great works of modern music. The FSU grad started with the highly acclaimed Alone with Three Giants, showcasing the work of piano greats Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, and Thelonius Monk. Then he moved into his George Gershwin phase, which consisted of the brilliant 1994 release Gershwin For Lovers, and 1996’s Portraits In Blue, which included a full orchestral version of “Rhapsody in Blue.” Throughout, Roberts has maintained an uncanny ability of balancing a healthy respect for a legendary artist while making the artist’s music sound relative in a modern context.

Now Roberts tackles Scott Joplin, and the effect is no less mesmerizing, the album no less enthralling, partly because Roberts adds eight original compositions while putting his own spin on some of the ragtime master’s classics. In other words, this ain’t Marvin Hamlisch (not that there’s anything wrong with Marvin Hamlisch). While Joplin’s music had more a jaunty, raucous and even light-hearted feel, Roberts adds a more textured feel to the music, providing even dark moments where Joplin might have bounced along.

After all, it would be easy to simply plug in the notes on the hit “The Entertainer,” made even more popular by Hamlisch on the soundtrack to the 1975 classic movie, The Sting. Instead, Roberts starts off the album, lays down almost a cool-jazz bassline with his left hand, while his right flirts with the catchy melody while never fully giving. And then, as is Roberts’ custom, he goes off on a tangent solo, coming back home when he has fully explored the song — ending on an almost melancholy note.

The Joy of Joplin shows Roberts once again connecting generations of jazz history, and having a helluva time doing it. Sony Music, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022

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