Three giants? There are at least four here, maybe five.
The title’s triple titans are Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. Giant No. 4 is a piano—from which Roberts summons a sweeping palette of tones and timbres, from misty shimmers to ice-pick treble accents and (in Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy”) thunderous clusters crisp enough to make Arthur Rubinstein sit up in his grave and shout, “Holy Mazurkas!”
But back to Jelly Roll, Duke and Monk (tabling the question of a fifth giant). Why group them, apart from their originality and genius as pianists and composers?
“Each of them knew how to create a mood and how to develop the theme so well that the composition never disappeared,” Roberts says. The same applies to the 25-year-old pianist’s bold, intimate and astonishingly clarifying renditions. In his hands, the idiosyncratic architecture of Monk harkens back to the elegant meshings of Morton. The impressionistic poetry of Ellington points forward to Monk’s tendernesses and lurching poignancies. With a song positioned at the beginning, middle and end of the 62-minute, 15-song set, Morton is literally and figuratively pivotal. He comes across as a kind of jazz Bach—a fundament, trenchant and crystalline.
Yet Roberts never gets stuffy, even if he is pictured on the album in white tie and tails. The guy can swing. And the blues flows from his fingertips as oil from a well. Raising another point. “Nobody has ever understood blues better,” Roberts says, “than Jelly Roll, Duke and Monk.” Coaxing great sound from two superb instruments—a Steinway Concert Grand and a Young Chang 52-inch Upright—Roberts demonstrates the inexhaustibility of the blues in the work of those three giants. That’s four so far, remember.
The fifth? The cat at the keyboard is looking like a contender. (RCA/Novus)