Finding an individual who knows the name Béla Fleck and has anything less than an immense amount of respect for him would be a challenge. On the other hand, you likely would not find many people who instantly think of jazz when they hear the name, but many minds were changed when he performed with the Marcus Roberts Trio on Thursday night at the Bijou Theatre.
Fleck has been performing arguably the best banjo music of the past 20 years, but it was not until he joined forces with the Marcus Roberts Trio that his name began to truly float around in jazz circles. The Roberts Trio, consisting of Marcus Roberts on piano, Rodney Jordan on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums, is a well-established name in the jazz community on their own, but the recent collaboration with Fleck has expanded their audience exponentially.
Fleck joined forces with the Marcus Roberts Trio to put together an album in 2012, and their show at the Bijou marked the first time the group had played together since last November. The performance attracted a large number of UT students, mostly due to the Cultural Attractions Committee’s involvement that resulted in great deals on student tickets.
The show started off on a high note with the band blazing through an opener that was nearly impossible to define. What do one get when combining an artist synonymous with bluegrass and one of the finest jazz trios of the past 15 years? Blue-jazz? Jazz-grass? Labeling such a fine combination of music seems pointless when it can only be understood by seeing it happen before one's eyes.
Finding a name for such an impressive collaboration is almost as hard as deciding who to focus on during the show. The only real complaint (if this can truly be argued as one) that can be made for the show is exactly that: who does one focus on? One could watch the show a dozen times and still miss several of the little things that make the show the most entertaining.
Several times throughout the show the spotlight would come up on Roberts ripping through a piano solo, while off to the side out of the spotlight, Fleck would be doing something equally worthwhile and exciting, but the decision on who to watch simply proved too much at times.
Every song followed a similar formula of the entire band starting the song together, then perhaps Roberts would take a solo, followed by Fleck. Next the always funk fueled Jordan would ease his way through a buttery smooth bass solo, finishing up with Marsalis playing a blistering drum solo until he got blisters on his fingers, if you will, before the entire band would return to wrap up the song.
With the formula that the group followed, one could easily see a similarity to what the world knows Fleck for—bluegrass. The performance was very similar to a bluegrass group, with everyone trading off solos and trying to respectfully one-up each other. Fleck often took his hands off his banjo and watched in wonder as the group that surrounded him meshed together in such a perfect way that he respectfully held back to let them show what they could really do.
The performance could certainly be described as a no-nonsense event between four of the most talented musicians of this day and age. Fleck and Roberts were the only ones to speak the entire night; however, when they did it was short, sweet and to the point, never distracting the audience away from the musical journey the group laid out before them.