From the opening bars of their first introduction, Marcus Roberts and his acoustic piano trio unpicked, repositioned and reassembled jazz piano history. They swapped loose-limbed pedals for tight-and-tense swing, and sparkling piano clusters for two-handed clumps. There were sideways forays and uneasy resolutions, a melody stretched and then simply stated. Each event came at an angle, further whetting the appetite for an unadorned piano trio playing with form.
Roberts’ remarkable two-handed technique gives him a left hand worth taking note of. Like Brad Mehldau, he constructs devious dialogues that change emphasis with a single raised finger, and his trio are equal partners, with the same grasp of logic and spur-of-the-moment thought. As with today’s best piano trios, theme statements launch musical journeys that shift shape at the drop of a hat.
Roberts, though, is steeped in gospel, and his vision is jazz-rooted and classically informed. There are contemporary popular references but the overwhelming sense is of a musician revelling in the history of his art and redrawing it anew. And at this gig, this remarkable feat was accomplished with a first set limited to Cole Porter and two original blues and a second focused on a single John Coltrane album, Crescent.
The opening “Night and Day” was rich and subtle and the following “Anything Goes” lived up to its title. There were odd bass lines and tin-can drums, playful themes and gospel chords, trills, vamps, a brief reggae pulse and a double-time crescendo that stopped on a pin. Two Roberts originals wound up a terrific first set. “Being Attacked by the Blues” assaulted a solid pulse with unexpected harmonies; “Heart of the Blues” showcased Rodney Jordan’s firm-fingered sensitivity on bass.
The second set applied the same group dynamic and attention to detail to Coltrane’s legacy, capturing the essence while avoiding pastiche. Drummer Jason Marsalis delivered a stripped-down lope, there was a flourish of mallets and a rousing burst of straight-ahead blues. The encore, a deep scamper over super-fast swing, stopped dead on a two-note finish.
Marcus Roberts is at the Sage, Gateshead, on March 24. www.thesagegateshead.org