Review: Shouts from the crowd as Marcus Roberts again reinvents 'Rhapsody in Blue'

05.13.17
Mei-Ann Chen
Chicago Tribune

More than two decades ago, the exceptional jazz pianist Marcus Roberts made history in Chicago, playing the world premiere of his improvised response to George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

Joined by his trio at the long-gone Skyline Stage on Navy Pier, Roberts dared to play music of his own making while the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra performed Gershwin's score as written. Since that remarkable night of July 1, 1995, Roberts has played the re-conceived "Rhapsody" around the world, reinvented Gershwin's Concerto in F in similar fashion and penned both a jazz piano concerto and a "Rhapsody" of his own.

This time around, the 1924 masterpiece opened as written, with the celebrated, ascending clarinet glissando heard 'round the world. But shortly after Roberts entered the musical dialogue, he took flight, rhapsodizing freely across the breadth of the keyboard. Cascading arpeggios, warm pools of sound and an array of alternate motifs defined his first big cadenza.

Once drummer Jason Marsalis and bassist Rodney Jordan entered the fray, "Rhapsody in Blue" swung like crazy, the trio soon sounding practically airborne. Shards of Gershwin's themes appeared now and then, but this really was a new piece inspired by an old one.

Eventually, of course, Sinfonietta conductor Mei-Ann Chen cued the orchestra to pick up where Gershwin left off but now with Roberts' trio going at full throttle. As exciting as is Gershwin's original, Roberts' hypervirtuosic pianism and the trio's rhythmic propulsion upped the intensity level.

Or perhaps there's another way to look at this: When Gershwin played the world premiere of the piece Feb. 12, 1924, he, too, improvised his solo part. In fact, he didn't even have time to write down vast swaths of it.

Today, with "Rhapsody in Blue" long since enshrined among American classics, it's difficult — if not impossible — for performers to recapture the shock the audience must have felt at that first performance. Roberts' version went a long way toward conjuring this element of surprise, although he did so in deeply personal terms.

By the time he arrived at his second big cadenza, he was re-examining fragments of Gershwin's themes via contemporary jazz harmonies, a juxtaposition as startling as it was satisfying. In effect, he had the benefit of using Gershwin's inspired ideas without being encumbered by them. Add to this Robert's well-established keyboard mastery, and it was no surprise that the audience applauded and shouted in midperformance, as the second piano solo was coming to a close.

Even in the big lyric theme, Roberts was not content to rely on the familiar melody and setting. His transformation of the tune — which quoted the first three notes but not much more — was very nearly Brahmsian in its ardors. And in the sprinting coda, Roberts' trio and the orchestra rode a wave of energy they'd jointly created.

Purists still might object to all of this, but considering the caliber of Roberts' pianism, the originality of his ideas and the rhythmically taut playing of his trio, it's easy to believe that Gershwin himself would have savored this work. No way to know for sure, of course, but Gershwin's piano playing thrived on fluid improvisation and fleet technique, just two qualities that distinguished Roberts' take on the "Rhapsody."

The concert, titled "Rightness in the Rhythm: 100 Years of Symphony and Jazz," opened with guest conductor Deanna Tham offering a lyrical account of Scott Joplin's Overture to "Treemonisha." Sinfonietta music director Chen returned to the podium for a snappy version of Michael Abel's Variations on "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" (which owed debts to Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein); an aptly brisk reading of Gershwin's "An American in Paris"; and an evocative interpretation of Bernstein's "On the Town: Three Dance Episodes."

But it was Roberts' reinvention of "Rhapsody in Blue" that mattered most, the sheer fearlessness of the venture all the more impressive coming from a pianist who has been blind since age five.
 
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