Savannah Music Festival review: Bela Fleck and the Marcus Roberts Trio

Bela Fleck and Marcus Roberts have been spoiling Savannah Musical Festival audiences for years now.

Fleck, perhaps the world’s most important banjo player, seems to have found a second home with the SMF: 2011 marks his fifth appearance in the last six years. Most notable to me was Fleck’s Africa Project with Toumani Diabate, D’Gary, and Vusi Mahlasela in 2009. Jazz pianist and educator Roberts has been a regular too since 2003; he also serves as the SMF’s associate director for jazz education.

Given the SMF’s incredible history of supporting collaboration, maybe it was only natural that Fleck would eventually find himself on stage at the Morris Center performing amidst Roberts’ amazing trio, which includes drummer Jason Marsalis and bassist Rodney Jordan. Then again, how often do musicians take risks like this, trying to meld instruments and styles in such daring ways?

I loved the 75 minute set I saw last night before a packed house of 300. It was clear from the first moments that Fleck and Roberts could make the banjo and the piano speak to each other, especially with the higher notes, which were complemented further by Marsalis’ cymbals.

Fleck and the Marcus Roberts Trio had obviously spent a lot of time working together, but there was still an improvisational, what’s-going-to-happen-next feeling to the entire show. Before tackling a new composition by Fleck, Roberts briefly noted that jazz musicians love improv, but when he first heard the piece, he wondered: “How do we play this?”

After a stunning rendition of “Lullaby of Birdland” near the end of the show, Fleck picked up a microphone: “I’ve never been terrified in such a friendly way before.”

As rich and unpredictable as the sound was from the foursome, I think the best moments were ones when the piano and banjo were paired most closely. For Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” Marsalis and Jordan left the stage, leaving Fleck and Roberts to get as much as they could from the ragtime classic. I don’t know, btw, if any of this work could be truly marketable, but any future work between Fleck and Roberts should include ragtime — it’s a style that seemed especially fitting to the jangliness of the banjo and quick precision of Roberts’ piano.

The piano and banjo also played off of each other especially beautifully in Roberts’ composition “A Servant of the People” off the album Blues for the New Millenium.

Roberts paid special thanks to SMF director Rob Gibson, whom he has known for about 20 years, for “creating a space where we could do something like this.”

So what next? I’m sure both artists will listen closely to the audio recorded by the SMF last night. I’m sure they’ll both continue other projects. I’m sure they’ll stay in touch and almost certainly meet again here in Savannah. But maybe they won’t wait that long and will find time to continue to explore the music. I hope so — I’d love to see what Fleck and Roberts could do with a more sustained collaboration.