Innovation is essential and the Mobile Symphony Orchestra will inject plenty into its mid-November “Beethoven & Blue Jeans” offering. There’s an inventive American slant in nod to its denim component.
In addition to Beethoven’s 7th Symphony the show features George Gershwin’s 1925 masterpiece Concerto in F, during which the MSO will be joined by guest jazz luminaries the Marcus Roberts Trio.
Roberts’ “groundbreaking” arrangement of the Gershwin work premiered in 2003 with the New Japan Philharmonic and he later recorded it with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Saito Kinen Orchestra. It was the Berlin collaboration that moved MSO Artistic Director Scott Speck to court Roberts.
“It’s a very difficult piece because Gershwin, he wrote for himself and his playing is quite tricky and unorthodox. His concerto is not to be taken lightly. It’s not easy by any means,” Roberts said.
The 54-year-old pianist knows challenges. Blind since age 5, the Florida native reads Braille charts but learned the Gershwin piece by ear.
“That took a long time, like four to six months. Then I had to figure out what I was going to do with it, to modernize it,” Roberts said.
His trio — together 23 years in November — knows Gershwin well. Considering the Brooklyn-born composer’s prominence in the jazz canon, it’s unsurprising.
“Jazz musicians love Gershwin. Somehow it works really well for improvisation. There’s something in his music that has this sense of Americana. You know, whatever we think of as American identity, Gershwin has that,” Roberts said.
Like the culture referenced, Roberts’ life is marked with adaptation. Despite his vision issues, he taught himself piano while young, started formal lessons at age 12 and moved on to study further at Florida State University.
At 21, Roberts toured with Wynton Marsalis and quickly ascended into international stardom. He’s played with Mark Whitfield, Bela Fleck, Elvin Jones and others in addition to recording 23 albums as a bandleader.
His combo is renowned for instinctive improvisation. Roberts’ conversation takes on a meditative patina when the subject arises.
“I can only improvise based on knowledge that unlocks the mysterious things that we don’t know,” he said. “I’m able play those things we don’t know through the consciousness and knowledge, through practice and study. Then through inspiration and creativity and imagination and quick reflexes, you’re able to execute and play things at a subconscious level.”
Roberts also developed a passion for education. He’s not only served as an associate artistic director for the Savannah Music Festival and director of the “Swing Central” High School Band Competition but he is on the faculty at his Tallahassee alma mater.
His students come to him in combos, eager to learn the mysteries of group improvisation. The teacher’s charge isn’t just to unlock their inner voice but to open their ears and learn negotiation.
“I explain to them, this will end up making you become a better American citizen, even if you don’t end up becoming a jazz musician. This information is going to help you learn how to share and communicate and deal with different opinions than yours with a certain amount of dignity and class,” Roberts said.
It’s a search for a magic state, where the music plays through the person, not vice versa.
Roberts equates the balance of improvisation within the framework of group collaboration and song structure with our government. By his reckoning, our Constitution provides the chords and we adapt various elements of government and life to fit contemporary necessity.
“Jazz is similar. Individual freedom is cool but it’s a delicate thing and you can get into some selfish agendas that become destructive. That model of political democracy we see, if you can resolve that conflict and you can make space for somebody’s opinion even when you don’t want to hear what it is, then that’s the model of civics we want to teach,” Roberts said.
He’s also concerned with emphasizing the accessibility of the music. While he recognizes the importance of the virtuosity brought to jazz by mid-20th century developments, he thinks the egos accompanying it weren’t for the best.
“I just think with jazz we have to get back to those fundamentals that were introduced in New Orleans music and the early Harlem music, yet do it in a way where it acknowledges we’re in the 21st century,” Roberts said.
That adaptive approach takes the stage of Mobile’s Saenger Theatre (6 S. Joachim St.) Nov. 18 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 19 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets cost $15 to $75 and are available by calling 251-432-2010 or visiting mobilesymphony.org.
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