By HOWARD REICH. The Chicago Tribune. Dec 13, 2016
Twenty-one years ago, the singular jazz pianist Marcus Roberts startled listeners with a radical reinvention of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Joined by his trio and the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra at the old Skyline Stage on Navy Pier, Roberts unveiled his improvised jazz version of the “Rhapsody,” catapulting a 1924 classic into the contemporary era.
Suddenly, the “Rhapsody” — one of the most familiar pieces in the symphonic repertory — took unexpected twists and turns, the pianist daring to improvise while his trio swung freely and an orchestra played the notes as written.
“To say that Roberts ‘improvised’ this ‘Rhapsody’ actually may be an understatement, for it implies that he simply embellished Gershwin’s score,” I wrote in my Tribune review of that historic occasion.
“In fact, Roberts radically reconceived the piano part, using Gershwin’s basic melodic material to create new themes, unexpected harmonies and bracing, utterly modern dissonances.”
Roberts’ 1996 recording of the reconceived “Rhapsody” pushed still further into unfamiliar terrain, and since then the pianist has stood at the forefront of intertwining jazz and classical languages, no simple feat.
His subsequent jazz reinterpretation of Gershwin’s Concerto in F led Roberts further down this road, the pianist unveiling his Spirit of the Blues: Piano Concerto in C Minor with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 2013.
And now Roberts has created another major new opus.
As its title suggests, the Rhapsody in D for Piano and Orchestra pays homage to Gershwin’s two greatest piano-orchestral works — “Rhapsody in Blue” and Concerto in F — but its sources of inspiration stretch beyond that. For the spirit of the brilliant French composer Maurice Ravel, who similarly fell under the spell of Gershwin (and vice versa), hovers about this piece.
Performed twice to date — in August at the Seiji Ozawa Festival in Japan and in September with the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra in Florida — the Rhapsody in D flies like the wind, its 18 minutes over before you know it.
A private recording of the world premiere suggests that Roberts has learned a great deal over the past couple of decades about merging jazz and classical languages. The compositional rigor and musical originality of the new work suggest that a Chicago performance would be most welcome, and sooner rather than later.
Like “Rhapsody in Blue,” Roberts’ piece restlessly careens from one theme, one impulse to the next. Tempos, meters, moods and musical idioms shift at the drop of a sixteenth note. No sooner do you feel comfortable in one mode of expression than Roberts jumps to another.
Though the program notes he penned for the first performance indicate that he conceived the piece in theme-and-variations form, it’s ultimately more complex than that. In part, that’s because two starkly different motifs are involved: one sweeping and romantic, the other syncopated and nearly whimsical. Because these themes are transformed by both pianist and orchestra, the composition suggests the weight of a bona fide piano concerto without sacrificing the impetuousness of a rhapsody.
The piece begins with a dramatic orchestral statement that evokes the opening pages of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand; segues into a lyric theme that’s impossible to forget; surges forward with jazz-trio writing that exults in swing rhythm; very nearly quotes piano passages from Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G; dips into New Orleans-style ensemble playing that point to the roots of American music; features an ineffably poetic piano cadenza; then races to the finish in a virtually seamless synthesis of jazz and classical traditions.
In effect, Roberts continues to build on efforts by Gershwin, Ravel, Darius Milhaud, Leonard Bernstein, Dave Brubeck, Wynton Marsalis and others to give jazz an honored place in the concert hall.
For profound reasons.
Jazz, “at its best,” writes Roberts in the program notes, “is infused with the genius of its creators — men and women who gave up much to build an art form, based on the ingredients of inclusion, self-respect, individual freedom and a cultural aesthetic that guarantees its relevance for future generations.”
Now the question is when Chicago will hear the Rhapsody. The possibilities seem plentiful, considering that “crossover” repertory has been popular at Chicago Symphony Orchestra performances downtown and at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park. And, of course, Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic was created to champion Third Stream scores blending jazz and classical music.
Any of these institutions would do well to give Roberts’ Rhapsody in D the spotlight it deserves.