Marcus Roberts has never been one to back down from a challenge. Blind since the age of 5, the Florida native began playing piano with Wynton Marsalis' group in the mid 1980s, a gig he held for six years, and has since earned a reputation as one of the young giants of jazz.
A longtime advocate for music education, he's an Associate Professor of Jazz Studies at Florida State University. He's also director of the Savannah Music Festival's "Swing Central" program for high school musicians.
This week, Roberts boldly goes into new territory (for him) with The Spirit of the Blues: Piano Concerto in C Minor, a three-movement piece commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the SMF. He created the work with Sibelius notation software, and a relatively new demo system called SONAR. And trial, error and talent.
It's the 49-year-old's first symphonic work, and the ASO will perform it, with Roberts and his jazz trio, April 6 in the Johnny Mercer Theatre.
A few days earlier — on March 30 — Roberts will play a rare solo piano recital at the Morris Center.
Why is your first full orchestral piece debuting in 2013?
Marcus Roberts: I'd been thinking about doing it for years, honestly, but the technology didn't exist for a long time that would allow a blind musician to do it. Because you've got to be able to print the music out so folks can read it. Not to mention the fact that I really didn't know much about orchestration. And so a lot of things had to happen over the years, as I chipped away at the idea.
At the point when it was realistically possible, then it was a question of, well, who to do it with — who's really interested in such a project? Robert Spano, the conductor for the Atlanta Symphony, we met in Chicago in 2005 — we were working with the Chicago Symphony, doing "Rhapsody in Blue" we met and had a great time, had a good rapport, and over the next three or four years we did a lot of work with his orchestra in Atlanta. And maybe around 2008 we started talking about them commissioning me to write a piece for the orchestra.
Did you know from the start exactly what it would be?
Marcus Roberts: The goal was that that I would improvise and make up stuff like the Gershwin stuff I do, but that there would also be written music for the orchestra. That's where we started. We just kicked it around for a couple of years, and finally in 2010 we really decided we were gonna do it. Even then, there was so much work that I had to do.
What was that?
Marcus Roberts: I had to listen to a lot of piano concertos, because we have many great European composers who perfected the form. And so the bar's set very high. It's not like you'd write a piano concerto and there wouldn't be anything to compare it to. So I spent a lot of time listening to piano music, just to figure out where my inspiration would come from.
And when I finally figured out what themes I wanted for each movement — that took a long time in and of itself — I studied orchestration books by Rimsky-Korsakov and Samuel Adler. When I figured out what I wanted to do, I officially started working on it in January of 2012.
Is there any improvisation in it, or is everything notated?
Marcus Roberts: All the movements are; there's a lot of action for the orchestra. There's even specific written-out parts for my drummer and bass player. But there are improvised cadenzas in each movement, and also there are sections that I might choose to improvise over. So it's gonna be a piece that has a lot of both in it.
All I can tell you is that I took it very seriously. It became an obsession, OK? [laughing] It started to evolve on its own — I had my original idea of what it was gonna be, but as I worked on it, it started to have its own structural necessities that had to be changed constantly. I've got hundreds of files that it took to get it where it is now.
You're also doing a solo piano recital here. Bob James told me that it's very daunting for a pianist to leave the safety of his group and perform that way.
Marcus Roberts: I did a lot of it in the early '90s. That was before I'd established my trio, and some of the bigger bands that I worked with. I love it, but it is very difficult. It is daunting. If you're not doing it a lot, there's a lot involved in the psychology you've got to have when you're playing by yourself. Because everything falls to you. The biggest thing you're trying to manage in a solo piano recital is the balance of contrasts that's necessary to keep people interested in the performance. You just have to be sure that the moods and tempos and everything have a lot of variety. And, honestly, the substance has to be very creative. Because it's the same timbre all night long. It's not broken up by another instrument. So you've gotta figure out a way that the sound of the piano doesn't start to get on people's nerves!
Talking about orchestrations and printed scores got me thinking: You have to keep it all in your head while you're playing with an orchestra. You must have a heightened sense of hearing.
Marcus Roberts: Yeah, obviously I'm listening to everything that's going on around me, and trying to react and improvise based on that. If you think about it, that's what everybody in life does. You live your life day to day — some of the things you can control, and you know what's happening, but a lot of times things just happen that you've got to give a spontaneous response to. And you have to hope that's gonna be the appropriate response, the best for you and best for the people you're interacting with. When I'm up there, I'm living in the past, present and future at all times. I have to keep all things available to me at all times in order for me to play the way I like to play.