by Ben Ratliff
New York TImes
February 4, 2008
The album Marcus Roberts recreated from start to finish at the Allen Room over the weekend is 18 years old, but its mannerisms don’t come from any particular era. The key to “Deep in the Shed,” that record of six concisely written pieces in blues form, is its natural shuffling of elements from jazz’s entire life.
It’s also one of the greatest cultural artifacts that owes its existence to Jazz at Lincoln Center. “Deep in the Shed” is a product of that organization’s artistic forces: Mr. Roberts started working with Wynton Marsalis’s groups in 1985 and shortly thereafter became one of the first important pianists in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
The album wasn’t pedantic, explicitly connecting style X with style Y or pulling you through a chronological history of jazz. And it never became redundant either. It shifted keys and tempos, masked its blues form in the theme sections and could sound ancient — older than the Delta blues for instance — or modern.
One thinks of it in the past tense. At the Allen Room the album was performed on Friday and Saturday, twice each night, in separate seatings. That allowed about 2,000 people to hear its music in total. But for now its rediscovery will be limited. The album is out of print, which is strange; it’s not a record that should be shrugged off.
The playing in Friday’s early set, by a nine-piece band with only one of the album’s original musicians — Wessell Anderson, the saxophonist — was a little restrained, but the beauty of the compositions came through clearly. There were Ellington-esque saxophone voicings, rhythm-section passages that suggested the John Coltrane Quartet, and semi-Arabic scales. Each piece was carefully arranged and packed with incident and contrast.
One of the album’s pieces most easily remembered across 18 years is “E. Dankworth,” if only because the recorded version included Mr. Marsalis playing a charged, perfectly one-upping trumpet solo under the pseudonym of its title. (Mr. Roberts kept up the ruse, identifying E. Dankworth in his introduction as “a trumpet player from London who sounds a lot like Wynton.” Mr. Marsalis was in Los Angeles, performing with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.)
Sure enough, the “E. Dankworth” performance had a lot more than the trumpet solo. It’s a fast piece, but Mr. Roberts played sparely and without post-1960s harmonic clichés. The two tenor saxophonists, Derek Douget and Stephen Riley, alternated 12-bar stretches with wildly different tones — one honking, one mentholated. Jason Marsalis played a drum solo of immaculate logic, pumping the bass drum on every beat, then layering rhythms on top. Roland Guerin performed an unaccompanied bass solo, plucking and slapping.
Finally came Etienne Charles’s trumpet solo, which didn’t have the bravura or momentum of the original but had strength and a clear, almost classical sense of thematic organization. Mr. Charles, in his early 20s, was a student of Mr. Roberts’s at Florida State University; the other young trumpeter onstage, Alphonso Horne, bore a deep Wynton Marsalis influence.
This record, and this way of playing jazz, still has repercussions, and the show was a good example of how Jazz at Lincoln Center — in the near-total absence of a jazz vernacular or a jazz-record business — has set itself up to cultivate, manage and amplify them.