Jazz Pianist Marcus Roberts Teams Up With the Boulder Philharmonic

The Marcus Roberts Trio (pictured) performs with the Boulder Philharmonic this weekend.
The Marcus Roberts Trio (pictured) performs with the Boulder Philharmonic this weekend. John Douglas
Renowned jazz pianist Marcus Roberts, who started playing in Wynton Marsalis's band when he was in his early twenties, debuted his arrangement of George Gershwin’s Concerto in F in 2003 with Seiji Ozawa conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. Roberts took an innovative approach to the concerto, reinventing it and leaving room to improvise, just as he had done with Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue" nearly a decade prior.

Roberts and his trio will perform another updated Concerto in F with the Boulder Philharmonic — which will also present "An American in Paris" — on Saturday, January 22, at Macky Auditorium, and Sunday, January 23, at the Lone Tree Arts Center. Nearly two decades after debuting his version of Concerto in F, Roberts says he’s still looking for new ways to approach the music.

“I always approach [the composition] as if I hadn't played it,” Roberts says. “I can kind of reset and have a different mindset, because every conductor is a little different. Tempos are slightly different; it’s slightly faster here, slightly slower there. I might bring out the strings more here, the brass more there. People think that classical music always has to be played the same way. It definitely does not.”

While the addition of upright bass and drums has helped modernize the concerto, Roberts notes that there have also been a lot of components introduced in jazz since Gershwin wrote it.

“[Gershwin] wrote it 1925,” Roberts says. “Count Basie’s Orchestra hadn't gotten off the ground yet. Duke Ellington had a quartet or quintet at the time; he didn't have a big band yet. So a lot happened between 1925 and 2003, when I premiered it. And certainly now in 2022, there's just a whole lot that we can do stylistically to the piece.

“And the great thing about Gershwin’s music is that it's so flexible," he continues. "So you really can approach his music by introducing it in collaboration with other stylistic influences that you might not be as comfortable doing with Mozart or Mendelssohn.”
Roberts says that he and his trio added a lot of grooves throughout the piece and spent a lot of time figuring out what would be appropriate to add.

“There are certain sections where we don't play at all because we want the beautiful orchestration that Gershwin did to come out,” Roberts says. “There are other places where we added a couple of sections just to explore some of the themes a little bit.”

He says it was a lot harder arranging Concerto in F than it was "Rhapsody in Blue" (from his 1995 album, Portraits in Blue), which he says is essentially a series of piano cadenzas.

“But Concerto in F is such a wonderful orchestration,” he adds. “We really had to figure out how to coordinate with the orchestra, how to Americanize it without destroying the European structures that Gershwin set up with the piece. We didn't want to interrupt the orchestration. We didn't want to impose things that completely changed what he had in mind.”

Roberts has released two dozen albums under his own name since The Truth Is Spoken Here, his 1988 debut, which also features drummer Elvin Jones and saxophonist Charlie Rouse. With Roberts’s trio (which takes a few cues from Ahmad Jamal Trio), there's dynamic interplay between Roberts on piano, bassist Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis, who’s also found ways to update Concerto in F by adding different grooves than what's found in the 2003 version.

“It’s crazy, some of the stuff that he brings to it spontaneously now,” Roberts says of Marsalis. “It feels like he’s just playing a standard, he knows it so well. So the drum chair has a lot to do with the arrangement.”

Roberts says that Marsalis and Jordan fit like a glove and they adjust to each other.

“I just let them do what they want to do," he says. "And that really inspires me in a lot of ways to also change. I’m really influenced a lot by the two of them in terms of the improvisation that we bring to it.”

The Marcus Roberts Trio and Boulder Philharmonic, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, January 22, Macky Auditorium, 1595 Pleasant Street, Boulder, $18 to $78; 1:30 p.m. Sunday, January 23, Lone Tree Arts Center, 10075 Commons Street, Lone Tree, $30 to $50.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon