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Positive Feedback ISSUE 61
may/june 2012


Bela Fleck-Marcus Roberts Trio/Supplementary BIO for Rounder
by Chip Stern


Across the Imaginary Divide

There is an ecstatic quality, an elegant breadth of scope and insight—both historical and personal—which pervades each and every one of the dozen performances which make up Across the Imaginary Divide, a joyous, richly inflected acoustic collaboration between banjo virtuoso-composer Bela Fleck, and the collective dynamo which is pianist-composer Marcus Roberts' Trio: featuring bassist Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis.

And while on paper, the prospect of such an elevated, Olympian encounter between the bluegrass/jazz fusion ninja and a master post-modernist so firmly grounded in the ragtime, New Orleans, stride and American songbook traditions is indeed enticing, such heady collaborations are not actualized on paper—there is no 1-800-Number for inspiration, cohesion and rapport.

From time to time, over the course of jazz history, many have been the hearts that were willing, though ultimately the flesh proved weak, through no obvious musical fault of any of the assembled participants, virtuosos, master players and supreme artists to a man: an underwhelming session featuring Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Elvin Jones comes immediately to mind; while it still confounds the senses to reflect how two musicians as masterful and seemingly made for each other as Thelonious Monk and Shelly Manne just never clicked.

Yet throughout Across the Imaginary Divide there exists a remarkable sense of collective equanimity and contrapuntal equipoise, as Fleck and Roberts maintain an animated conversational dialog, like a couple of happy toddlers bouncing about on a harmonic trampoline… having just discovered a new best friend and how much they have in common—proving conclusively that it's not styles which clash, only people, and that jazz is a big enough tent to include all manner of folk music and creative expression.

"Marcus has that blues thing in his head that all the jazz guys have," Bela suggests. "That if you don't understand blues you don't understand jazz, and I think that one of the things that ties us together is actually the blues in bluegrass and the blues in jazz. Another thing I would mention is the kind of jazz that Marcus plays suits my sensibility because of my earthy acoustic bluegrass and roots sensibility, whereas some collaborations in a more modern jazz settings might not prove nearly as connected. There's something different about this encounter with Marcus and his trio, because of its connection to ragtime and New Orleans and musics that actually had a banjo in it. And while it's true that all of this fancy-pants banjo stuff was not part of the New Orleans tradition—where it was primarily used as a rhythm instrument—there's still a precedent for the sound of the banjo in that music which is probably why guys like Marcus and the Marsalis guys are more open to me than they might be if I played another instrument, you know what I mean. They've been living with banjo for a long time, and they like it."

"To me, folk just means community," Marcus interjects by way of an amen chorus. "It's not unique to jazz or bluegrass or any other style. The jazz language has a spirit and history of instrumental and vocal virtuosity that covers decades of time, and includes a bunch of people who made significant contributions to it. I do know that when music is well-rehearsed and when the players are listening and contributing with integrity and understanding, it's much easier to hear where they are coming from in terms of their own history. Our music is only limited by what you know about it and the range of musical experiences and scholarship that you have. I believe that it is imperative that we celebrate the virtuosity of our music while making room for someone else's talent and gifts to shine through. To do that, there must be give and take. Great musicians always listen to one another for inspiration and for great ideas that can be developed by the entire group. Jazz music is so inclusive, so rich, so full of diversity, taste, and imagination, that when I heard Bela play the first time at a jazz festival in Savannah, Georgia with my trio, I felt that we could make a collaborative project work. Bela plays with soul, rhythmic variety, and intelligence. I thought my trio could benefit from playing with him, and that he could benefit from being in touch with a jazz band that had been together for years developing a group sound that is grounded in blues and swing. Bela and I have a special ability to play off of each other. His reflexes are fast, precise, and appropriate to the musical situation, so as a trio we had a great time figuring out new ways to integrate his talent and perspective into our group style."

"There was a degree of interplay that was great almost from the first moment we played together," Bela enthuses, "but also a work ethic, in that we were looking for a certain level that we wanted to hit. And Marcus was not scared of complexity, of making the arrangements as textured and interesting as we could…and we weren't happy unless we were getting into that ballpark. So we didn't just go, okay, we got through the song and we each played a good solo; that's it, let's go on to the next song. No. It was more like, I think we can do this better, and when you play your solo, I should be all over your thing; and when I'm doing mine, what if this happens or what can we do behind the bass that will make every solo sound different or what can we do with the groove here; and tossing all of these puzzle pieces into the air and coming up with a cool shape and then doing that enough times to really get it before we moved on to the next song."

The evidence of all that love, respect and dedication to raising the creative bar is apparent in each of these twelve performances, alternating track by track between their compositions: Bela and Marcus, Bela then Marcus, until it's impossible to determine which twin has the Toni, so simpatico are their visions of an ensemble repertoire. And the level of sweat equity Bela, Marcus, Ronny and Jason invested in each arrangement elevates these encounters well beyond the realm of a mere blowing session, and on into the familial level of a great collective ensemble: such as on Marcus' "Let Me Show You What To Do" with its down-homey tuba-styled New Orleans parade bass, and jump blues release; or the manner in which Bela's "Petunia" seemingly juggles blues and bluegrass elements, as if Muddy Waters and Earl Scruggs were engaged in a round of Liar's Poker. Likewise on Bela's evocative ballad "Kalimba" the banjo master suggests something of the African Thumb Piano, elegantly echoed by the pianist with bell-like, serenely atmospheric filigrees in the instrument's upper register, as the rhythm section tolls away suggestively. Their level of interplay herein is emblematic of track after track on this recital, as the two master improvisers complement each other's phrases in a vortex of counterpoint and contrary motion, a sensuous, subliminal dialog that is damn near surreal in its symmetry.

"I think that is part of the higher art of improvising," Bela concurs, "in keeping the conversation going and providing the ballast to each other; so as you careen off in one direction, the other person can do what's necessary to make it all connect and make sense. Like on "Let Me Show You What To Do" where the arrangement vectors from very slow to very fast, and then there's a wonderful section where the piano solo becomes a trio solo, as I simply drop out and they engage each other, and it's a really beautiful example of how they play together as a trio.

"Rodney Jordan is just a guy who wants to make everything sound good all the time; he has a big warm sound; a smart player—really sweet. And playing with Jason was really fantastic; he's an impeccable player with a lot of sensitivity and brains; he swings his ass off and creates a framework you could land an aircraft carrier on. And Marcus? Oh, man… I first heard him with Wynton back in the ‘80s, and he just blew my mind and was immediately one of my favorite guys; and ever since I've been a huge fan. I always felt he was a valuable and important player on the scene, the type of person I imagined I'd love to play with one day, although I didn't know if I was up to the job. And when we first got a chance to jam together in Savannah it was like, bang, away we went, and it was so much fun; and he was listening to every note, as quiet as I was; and immediately had an interaction that was fantastic… he was so open to me. And I think we were both sort of surprised, and now, having had the opportunity to do this recording, and to meld with his trio, I am so psyched about how we can grow our music and evolve when we go out and do an extended series of live dates this spring and summer."

Listening to the title tune in which Bela and Marcus engage in a thrilling series of escalating rhythm changes, harmonic juxtapositions and ensemble events, upping the emotional and conceptual ante with each chorus—despite the complete absence of solo events—it will likely occur to even the most casual of listeners, that the metaphorical divide suggested by the title is damn well illusory, let alone imaginary. And that American music, how so ever you label it, is a great river, with countless tributaries of inspiration feeding into it, and that jazz's inclusiveness, its sense of commonality and diversity, is what continues to give it strength and staying power, while inspiring generation upon generation of young people and those young of spirit—much as Bela and Marcus and Ronnie and Jason remain—to investigate its byways and my-ways, to revel in its roots and its fruits, in the tradition of commonality and exploration, in the spirit of community and the ongoing oral and classical traditions of its tribal elders and sacred ghosts.

"With Across the Imaginary Divide I was looking for a title that brought the idea that there are these supposed barriers between all of these musical styles, but they're largely imaginary," Bela asserts emphatically. "Because in spite of all those social and musical misconceptions, when you get musicians together and give them the opportunity to hook up as human beings and just play, there's always the possibility of magic, of a connection that transcends these supposed barriers—and that's where I got the idea for the title. Because you're crossing this divide, and it's supposed to be this big deal, but it's not even there."

"Jazz exists because of the shared struggle of so many people expressing their desire to be free and independent thinkers inside of incredibly unfair social circumstances," Marcus testifies conclusively. "Our music will flourish regardless of the limitations it faces. This recording is an example of the power of individual ideas put inside of a group philosophy. That group philosophy is grounded in rich soil: Ahmad Jamal, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, gospel, funk, and old and modern approaches to New Orleans music. I have no worries about its future, or whether other musicians will take up the creative mantle and continue to inspire and expand our audience through their own profound achievement. Of course they will.

"The music, in the end, is the most important thing—not the people playing it. We are merely the vehicles that take the music to the people, through our life experiences, our knowledge and understanding of art and culture, and our ability to serve both our individual agendas, and the overall demands of what our art form must be in order to remain itself. Jazz in its most fundamental state is inclusive, global, group, and individual—it celebrates community, not birthright. Everyone can be regal, as long as you put yourself at the service of those who came before you—who were already regal before you played your first note. Jazz music is in my blood; it is truly an honor and a privilege to call myself a jazz musician, and to play an instrument as grand and universal as the piano. It gives me no reason to think that the future of this art form is anything but bright and prosperous. Across the Imaginary Divide is one step in that direction."