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Young Pianist Leaves Mark on Charts

Educated, eclectic, articulate, ambitious, intense, inspired: Marcus Roberts is all of these and, in the view of many who have heard him, securely in place on the route to greatness.

Though still nominally a sideman, as pianist with Wynton Marsalis’ group, he has broken through in his own right with a debut album, “The Truth Is Spoken Here” (RCA Novus 3051-2-N), which in late May made an astonishing leap to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard jazz chart.

He is even taking occasional leaves of absence to lead his own group. On July 20 he will start a four-day run at the Vine St. Bar & Grill in Hollywood.

Soft spoken almost to the point of inaudibility, Roberts recently sat in his Hollywood hotel room, conservatively attired in black suit and tie, reminiscing about his meteoric rise.

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“I was born in Jacksonville, Fla.,” the 25-year-old Roberts said. “My mother was a singer. As a child I heard gospel music when she sang in the church.

“I lost my eyesight early; I had two operations for cataracts, one when I was 5, the other at 15, but nothing was left except light perception. I studied Braille music, which was very useful in my studies of the classical repertoire.”

His parents bought him a piano, on which he began nine years of classical studies, including four years as a music major at Florida State University in Tallahassee. The earmarks of success were soon detectable as he won a series of contests.

“In 1982 I entered a contest at the Jazz Educators’ Convention in Chicago. Wynton was there with his group. I won the contest, but didn’t get to perform with him; however, I did meet his father, Ellis Marsalis, who gave me Wynton’s phone number.”

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The result was a friendship by telephone. “When I called him,” he says, “Wynton was very friendly. He was most insistent about my being serious and dedicated. I really learned to admire and respect him, and I followed all his advice. We only actually met three times before I joined his group.”

Marsalis recalls one of those meetings: “Three months before my band broke up I met him, and I found his views and attitudes at least as cogent and impressive as his playing. When I asked him to replace Kenny Kirkland with me, he came to my apartment and I was amazed--he already knew every note of everything we played!”

“I had listened to Wynton’s records a great deal,” says Roberts, “because in some of his work, like ‘Black Codes From the Underground,’ I heard music that was unlike anything I had known. Before that I had studied mainly Duke Ellington--I was fascinated by his level of elegance and sophistication--and Miles Davis and John Coltrane. During that period of learning Wynton’s music I practiced from eight to 10 hours a day.”

The Roberts debut album leaves no doubt that along with his respect for Ellington (reflected in Duke’s “Single Petal of a Rose” and “In a Mellotone”) as well as for Monk (“Blue Monk”), he has developed a compositional style of his own. His five originals show the broad span of his imagination, from the harmonically attractive “Maurella” to the deftly gliding “The Arrival” and the self-explanatory “Nothin’ But the Blues.”

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Like Wynton and Branford Marsalis and others of their generation, Roberts successfully avoids allowing his respect for the past to mire him in the values of yesterday; as he points out, originality and fresh creativity can and should be linked to an understanding of tradition.

What he will contribute in the short term may be made even clearer when he goes to work on his next album for RCA Novus. “It’s going to be the first volume of a two-part all-blues series,” Roberts said. “I’m writing six compositions in six different keys, major or minor, and for the second volume I’ll write six more in six other keys. You gotta deal with them keys.”

Given the excitement that has been engendered by the success of his album, how long will it be before the inevitable decision to leave Marsalis permanently and strike out on his own?

“That’s hard to answer. My philosophy says that I’ll stay here with Wynton until I feel that my contribution to his legacy of music is complete. I have no way of knowing how long that will take, and I don’t intend to rush into anything.”

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