The piano trio: It's a stately, functional staple of jazz. From the famed '50s and '60s trios of Bill Evans through the present-day groups of Brad Mehldau, the configuration of piano, bass and drums has created everything from impressionistic portraits of the blues to gallant exhibitions of swing.
But there is a reason such a setting is called a piano trio. Inevitably, the band interplay is built around the lead voice of a keyboard. That's the part Marcus Roberts is out to modify — if not change outright — when he performs his first Lexington concert in nearly two decades Friday night at the Opera House.
"What we're ultimately about is a philosophy of playing," Roberts said. "It's about bringing the bass and drums to more of an equal position in the trio. A lot of that has to do with how the music is arranged. If it is arranged the right way, the bass and drums can participate a lot more in determining the musical direction, the rhythm, the grooves we play, the tempos, even the form, depending on how well thought out it is. That's the basic goal of it, to increase the power of the trio's sound through making the drums and bass more equal in what is being featured."
Such equality is often born of band spirit. On Roberts' 2013 album, From Rags to Rhythm, the pianist's longtime trio mates — bassist Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis — create solo, duo and trio exchanges that purposely de-emphasize the piano's dominance. (Program note: Roberts' original trio drummer, Herlin Riley, who backed the pianist on his landmark 1989 album Deep in the Shed, will sub for Marsalis at Friday's performance.).
On the surface, such diplomacy might seem a deterrent to Roberts' enormous instrumental vocabulary, which covers rich stride styles, deep New Orleans rhythms (no mean trick, given that he is a native Floridian) and the performance inspirations of myriad piano giants (from Scott Joplin to Thelonious Monk). But another influence is at work in Roberts' music — namely, the bandleading abilities the pianist absorbed through an '80s apprenticeship with Wynton Marsalis (elder brother of Jason Marsalis).
"Wynton hired me at a point where, honestly, I don't know if anybody else really wanted to or was as open as he was to it," Roberts said. "But he was willing to give me a chance. That was a very important opportunity for me."
A Jacksonville, Fla., native, Roberts lost his sight as a child as a result of glaucoma. Living with blindness as he worked, taught (as associate professor of jazz studies at Florida State University) and excelled as a jazz artist with a catalog of more than 20 albums has proved to be largely an exercise in attitude.
"It's a disability," he said. "That means there is something that just doesn't work at all. So what you have to do is make sure that disability doesn't get in the way of what you want to do. My mother raised us, and she is totally blind. That helped me grow up without any attitude toward the disability that made me a victim. That's the first thing.
"The second thing deals with the music. I've always prided myself on being a total, complete musician. I certainly use my ears, of course. I like to do things naturally. But I also learned how to read Braille music notation and I've learned enough about print music notation to dictate print music to people. In other words, the key thing is to make sure the disability in no way limits what it is you can do or want to do.
"That might require you to use your other senses more or sacrifice a lot of time to learn new things. Whatever you need to do, then that's what you've got to do."