Jazz with a Smile: Piano virtuoso Marcus Roberts takes a joyful, jazzy ride with Bela Fleck - and his banjo

Pianist Marcus Roberts is a legacy man. His music – his jazz – celebrates the genius of Duke Ellington, Scott Joplin, George Gershwin and Jelly Roll Morton, but always with an original signature. He's an earnest artist, with vision. For the past 25 years, Roberts has built a reputation on respect, discipline, virtuosity and taste.

So now he's hanging out with a guy who plays the banjo?

That's right. For the past several months, Roberts and his trio have been touring America with banjo maestro Bela Fleck — a 14-time Grammy winner whose interests run from bluegrass to fusion — in support of a new CD, "Across the Imaginary Divide."

The music they're creating together is joyful, imaginative, rich in jazz substance and a whole lot of fun.

"We have a good time playing this music," says Roberts, speaking via telephone in advance of Thursday's Roberts-Fleck jazz show at Austin's One World Theatre. "Bela is such a fountain of knowledge and virtuosity and styles and influences. It's easy to play with him because there's no lack of imagination."

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As jazz experiments go, "Across the Imaginary Divide" is a delight. From the opening notes, it doesn't just tickle the intellect. It commands a smile.

Roberts and Fleck breathe as one in the music, locked in with Rodney Jordan on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums

They have a lot of fun with time and tempo and rhythm. They bust through boundaries but never in a loud or boisterous of self-conscious way.

A larger integrity rules.

As does a sense of play.

Apart from the album's ambitions: Roberts and Fleck sound great together. The piano and banjo, the blend of sounds and the intersecting timbres, are surprisingly beautiful. And breathtaking. There are moments in which Roberts' piano notes fall like raindrops between the dash lines of Fleck's arpeggios. The aesthetic is delicate, precise, swift, free.

The New York Times observed that the Fleck-Roberts collaboration is "neither showdown nor hoedown." There's no competition going on. It is in no way a novelty project. But it is not timid. The very first track, "Some Roads Lead Home," blazes with light, swings hard, as it references everything from stride to blues to bluegrass to gospel, with brisk time changes and a sense of whimsy. It sets the table.

"One thing about Marcus: He has an incredible sense of time," Fleck has observed. "As a banjo player, with a very sharp front attack to my notes, it's almost like I'm a percussion player. So how people relate to time is make-or-break for me. ... And in this case, it flew from the first moment."

Roberts and Fleck met — and jammed — at the Savannah Music Festival several years ago.

Fleck, who won a Grammy in the contemporary jazz category in 2007 and has recorded with jazz pianist Chick Corea, knew more about Roberts' journey than the pianist knew about the banjo master. No matter: The two found kinship through a shared affinity for blues, stride, New Orleans music — and a yearning to stretch. No surprise both musicians have projects set with symphony orchestras after this tour.

While the Roberts-Fleck collaboration stretches the bounds of 21st century jazz, the banjo has long played a role in jazz history. Some scholars believe ragtime piano evolved from banjo syncopations. In the early days of jazz, King Oliver's bands sometimes included banjo. In the 1920s and 1930s, Duke Ellington's band featured a banjo player, Fred Guy, though mainly as a rhythm instrument. Today, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell collaborates with eclectic banjo player Danny Barnes, who lived and played in Austin for years. With Roberts, Fleck's banjo sound can be very sophisticated. Think steel drum, or African thumb piano.

So what does Marcus Roberts think? If he were to walk into the studio, what would the ghost of Duke Ellington think of "Across the Imaginary Divide"?

"I think he would have nodded his head in approval," says Roberts. "Remember: He used say ‘no boxes,' right? He did not agree with how we categorize a lot of jazz. Duke Ellington didn't think that was good for music. And I agree. Once you draw distinctions — ‘you're this, but not that' — it starts to become a marketing game, instead of just keeping things based on the music itself.

"The only thing that limits you as a musician is your knowledge and proficiency in whatever style of music you're playing. For example, I've always been historically known for playing early jazz piano styles. I don't have a problem with that. But it kind of reduces you to one facet of your artistry instead of looking at the whole picture. ...

"The most important thing we have to do (in jazz) if we're going to continue this audience and keep people interested in the music is keep it as much as possible about the music. We don't have to necessarily tell people so much about what style it is or isn't. They'll figure it out. So these kinds of projects are maybe good for that. If you asked me 10 years ago, ‘Do you see yourself doing a project with Bela Fleck?' I probably would have said ‘no.' But as it turns out, even as a musician, even as an artist who is serious, you don't dig deeply enough into what people are about to really know. I didn't know about Bela Fleck or all the records he'd done. And I've had the same experience, where people reduce you to a little snapshot of your own life. You know?"

Contact Brad Buchholz at 912-2967

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