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The Imaginary Divide: Bela Fleck and Marcus Roberts

Not long ago saw the release of an album calculated to take the average listener by surprise: a joint effort between banjoist Bela Fleck and pianist Marcus Roberts and his trio featuring Rodney Jordan on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums. Yes, that Bela Fleck, of the spectacular, idiosyncratic jazz/blues/bluegrass/fusion/world band the Flecktones. And yes, that Marcus Roberts, known in part for his collaborations with Wynton Marsalis and his association with the currents of neo-traditionalism that have very vociferous opinions about what is and is not “jazz”. In other words, this is a collaboration between Roberts and a major proponent of all he sees wrong in the current scene. Indeed, the drummer on this record, the undeniably talented Jason Marsalis, is better known in some circles not for his musicianship, but his conservatism, and outbursts like this one, in which he decries the trend of young musicians breaking the conventions of jazz:

After a brief plug for the local scene, Marsalis takes issue with such modern staples as chromaticism in solos, odd time signatures, a lack of emphasis on standards and straight feel. What should one do if one is caught in a situation when such music is played? “Run for the door.”

This is an ongoing debate in the jazz community and it is fundamentally about traditionalism. Marsalis sees an inherent value in the perpetuation of the tradition as it is; his emphasis on learning and playing standards and studying from past masters suggest how strongly he believes in perpetuating the tradition. Fleck, on the other hand, could rather be seen as an anti-traditionalist; in style and sound, Fleck’s music is often radically new, melding styles and instrumentation that had never previously had anything to do with each other. As if in recognition of the apparent contradiction, the album has the thought provoking title of “Across the Imaginary Divide“, as if this album presented the consolation between two seemingly opposed conceptions of the music. So, does this album bridge the divide?

Before I say anything else, I should note that the album is really not bad, if perhaps lacking a bit in edge. The opening song, a wonderful bluegrass-y jaunt by Bela entitled “Some Roads Lead Home”, just bubbles over with energy. And what’s more, Marcus Roberts actually seems to be committing to bluegrass feel! The whole thing, from every member of the quartet, expresses such a satisfying groove. I didn’t find the rest of the album quite as exciting, but still, all in all, not a bad album by a long stretch. Not the most dynamic album ever made, but a surprising success from such an otherwise iffy concept. I don’t want to talk about the album itself all that much, however. Really, I want to discuss the attitudes behind it and what it means.

Marcus Roberts, for all the openness that agreeing to record with a banjo player would suggest, remains clearly a purist. His note in the liner notes, in which he explains how he came to meet Bela and how this project came about, at times could read as a traditionalist diatribe. “When I started my professional career with Wynton Marsalis in 1985” he tells us, “jazz piano was no longer widely appreciated.” Partly in defense of this tradition, Marcus tells us, he studied the music of the great piano masters of old and integrated their styles into his playing. While there is undeniable benefit to studying the old masters, that statement reads sort of backhanded to me. Was jazz piano really no longer appreciated? Well, perhaps in the sense that jazz in general has not been a popular music form since the days of the swing big bands, but in as much as there has been a jazz community with dedicated fans, it seems to me there has been appreciation for jazz piano.

After all, what of the living piano legends at the time? What about Herbie Hanock, McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett or Chick Corea? What were they doing in 1985? Well, perhaps Herbie is the wrong person to bring up when talking about traditional straight ahead jazz, since his electro-funk 1983 album “Future Shock” is about as shocking to a traditionalist’s sensibilities as is possible, but neither did he abandon straight ahead jazz. The early 80’s saw Hancock release both a V.S.O.P live quartet album (with Wynton Marsalis himself filling the trumpet chair) and composing and performing on the soundtrack to the movie “‘Round Midnight” starring Dexter Gordon. The first albums of Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio with Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock (which itself is a tradition steeped band) came out a few years before Robert’s start in 1983 and their first live release came out a few years after in 1987, although it was actually recorded in 1985 itself. Chick Corea too is perhaps a bad example to bring up since the 80’s saw the creation of his awful fusion/80’s tack Elektric Band, but in between offending purist’s sensibilities, he also put out “Trio Music” and “Trio Music: Live” with the spectacular trio behind his pivotal “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs”, with Roy Haynes and Miroslav Vitous. If those aren’t albums celebrating jazz piano, than I don’t what is.

It’s not clear what Marcus would say about those albums or what they imply for the presence of a jazz scene at the time. His liner notes make me inclined to believe he wouldn’t really consider them jazz proper. When I say Marcus tells he studied the music of the masters, what he actually says is: “I studied the music of Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Ellington, Monk, Scott Joplin and others”. This isn’t even nostalgia for pre-fusion, acoustic, straight ahead jazz, it’s nostalgia for the 30’s. If that collection of piano players is how you define jazz piano, than the 80’s were undoubtedly a depressing time: in 1985 they had all already died, some of them a long time prior. His willingness to collaborate with a musician as unique and dynamic as Bela may seem to suggest a certain progressivism, but even the way he writes about the collaboration casts some doubt: “When I met Bela, it was clear to me that this would be a true collaboration between two diverse, serious artists grounded in the same soil of American blues.” He’s not talking about doing some new and different, he’s talking about getting back to the blues.

I don’t mean to disrespect Marcus Roberts or his trio, they are great musicians all and have produced some very enjoyable music over the years. Nor do I want to imply that traditionalism is somehow wrong. If anything, traditionalist minded musicians are necessary in creating a musical community that embraces and produces a wide variety of different types of music. And nor do I have anything negative to say about someone who only wants to listen to Jelly Roll or Ellington. It goes with out saying that everyone should listen to the music that gives them the greatest enjoyment, whatever that may be. My issue is one of attitude. The rejection of all music that you either dislike or that disagrees with your aesthetic sensibilities is not the way to improve the artistic community. This album itself should serve to show that embracing non-traditional elements and working beyond your normal scope can produce good music. Not that Roberts needs to incorporate Bela into every album he makes from now on, but surely we’re all better off that he did it at least once? I only wish it had been done with a bit more genial and accepting attitude.

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