Marcus Roberts and Bela Fleck transcend an 'Imaginary Divide'

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Bela Fleck

Bela Fleck (October 16, 2012)

What happens when two formidable soloists from seemingly remote worlds of music decide to share a spotlight?

At worst, chaos. At best, something close to what happened Monday night before a standing-room-only crowd at Evanston SPACE.

It would be fair to conclude that, like the performers themselves, two very different audiences converged here: fans of bluegrass-eclectic banjoist Bela Fleck and devotees of jazz pianist Marcus Roberts. By evening's end, each contingent likely had learned a great about the music that excites the other.

Fleck and Roberts recently collaborated on a surprising, disarming album, "Across the Imaginary Divide" (Rounder), its title summing up its purpose: to link musical genres that have more in common than casual listeners might suspect. The banjo, after all, played a noble role in the pre-history and early eras of jazz; and a jazz pianist as stylistically nimble as Roberts can adapt to practically any situation.

But each of the soloists went out of his way to accommodate the other, the two musicians – plus Roberts' trio – dipping freely into bluegrass, ragtime, blues, contemporary jazz and a mixture of each for which there's really no name.

In some ways, the performance topped the album. In others, it fell a bit short.

From a purely musical perspective, the Fleck-Roberts partnership showed a vividness of expression that no recording could duplicate. Until you hear Fleck's fast-flying banjo virtuosity answered and accompanied live by Roberts' deep-into-the-keys, blues-tinged pianism, you can't fully understand the allure of this collaboration. Fleck's music reflects a down-home, folkloric sensibility, albeit expressed at a high technical level. Roberts' jazz improvisations are harmonically quite complex, luring Fleck into new realms of thought.

Add to this the taut rhythmic drive of drummer Jason Marsalis and the soulful cadenzas and buoyant swing rhythms of bassist Rodney Jordan – Roberts' longtime band mates – and you had a music as effective as it was unusual.

Yet the power of Roberts' pianism and the plushness of his trio also posed some difficulty for Fleck, whose soft-spoken instrument could not always ring out beyond the swirl of sound around him. Engineers can adjust these balances easily in mixing a recording; less so in live performance.

Even so, Fleck and Roberts traded poetic phrases in Fleck's "One Blue Truth," the banjoist's delicate arpeggios counterbalanced by Roberts' Chopinesque tone on piano. Roberts pushed all the musicians, himself included, in his "Let's Go," which argued definitively that bracing, 21st century jazz pianism can inspire comparable adventurousness from the banjo.

If Roberts' trio often dominated the proceedings, one had to admire Fleck's courageousness in taking on the challenge.

'Our Kind of Tune'

The fragile art of cabaret looked and sounded vital on Sunday evening, when several of this city's most accomplished artists took the stage of the Park West.

The occasion was the 14th annual gala staged by Chicago Cabaret Professionals, an organization that champions the music through performance, education and outreach. Though CCP presents events throughout the year, this one stands as its Oscars ceremony, a marathon crowded with awards, speeches and, of course, performance.

The most inspiring moments of the evening, titled "Our Kind of Tune," belonged to 84-year-old singer Marilyn Maye, who said she hadn't performed in Chicago since the 1970s. Before then, she played everywhere from the Empire Room at the Palmer House to Mister Kelly's to clubs less celebrated and long forgotten.

Yet Maye, the ceremony's National Honoree, made few concessions to the passage of time, singing with all the guts and gusto one associates with such veterans as Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra in the last years of his career. Like them, Maye owned the stage, prowling from one side to the next to address the full range of the audience, strutting right up to its edge to emphasize a point or a gesture.

Vocally, she proved herself in fine ship, her sound full, her pitch nearly unerring, her somewhat raspy tone rich in character. Backed by a jazz trio, Maye beguiled the crowd with might be called a "Rainbow" medley, its highlights including a lilting account of "Look to the Rainbow" in which every note carried meaning and weight. Better still, Maye ventured without inhibition into "Over the Rainbow," reconceiving Judy Garland's anthem in deeply personalized ways. No one phrases the Harold Arlen classic the way Maye did, her hushed, low-key beginning eventually leading to soaring long-held notes but not a trace of bombast.

Before Maye tore up the place and then accepted her honor, Chicagoan Spider Saloff received the Gold Coast Award and showed why she deserved it. She brought plenty of brass and attitude to "Caravan," reminding listeners that the worlds of cabaret and jazz can coexist quite handsomely when the right singer stands in front of the microphone.

But Saloff's most knowing performance emerged in a slow-and-dreamy version of Irving Berlin's "There's No Business Like Show Business." Only a performer who has experienced the glories and heartbreaks of a life in music could have captured its highs and lows as poignantly as Saloff did. Her tendency to place a vowel at the end of every consonant, even at the conclusion of a musical phrase, may be a bit anachronistic, but Saloff's decades of performance have earned her the right to indulge in a few nostalgic mannerisms.

Earlier in the evening, Joan Curto provided more vocal bloom than I've heard from her in Cole Porter's "My Heart Belongs to Daddy"; Laura Freeman produced a gutsy version of "Love Me or Leave Me," though the climax started to soon and became a tad too shrill; Tom Michael and Beckie Menzie offered an unconventional version of Michel Legrand's "The Windmills of Your Mind," though Menzie's speech-song passages were not as effective as the lines she sang fully; and Denise Tomasello brought an appealing grandiosity to Kander and Ebb's "The World Goes 'Round."

Menzie's pianism drove most of this music-making, underscoring her role as one of the most vital players in Chicago cabaret.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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