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Caramoor Jazz Festival: Béla Fleck and the Marcus Roberts Trio

Bela Fleck and the Marcus Roberts Trio, Caramoor Jazz Festival, 8/4/12

"I want to thank Marcus for letting me live out my jazz fantasies." - Béla Fleck

The banjo might not be the first instrument that comes to mind when one thinks of jazz, but if anyone can bring that bluegrass-bound instrument into the world of improvised music, it's Béla Fleck. Having already conquered the worlds of classical, roots and world music, Béla - generally regarded as the world's greatest banjo player - has made a career out of crossing musical boundaries, with picking that is both passionate and precise.

Béla's latest venture, Across the Imaginary Divide, was recorded last year with the Marcus Roberts Trio, one of jazz' tightest ensembles. Marcus and Béla have been out touring ever since, landing Saturday night in Katonah, NY where they closed out the 2012 Caramoor Jazz Festival to a packed house. Any reservations I might have had going in about how a twangy bluegrass instrument would sound next to a traditional jazz piano trio were immediately washed away once Béla started working his amplified banjo like Bill Frisell with five picks. As I and everyone else at the Venetian Theater discovered, it's not much of a musical leap to go from jazz guitar to banjo, at least in Béla's able hands. 

Béla and Marcus dueled back and forth all night, with Marcus often sounding like he was playing with three hands, just to keep up. Supporting were Rodney Jordan on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums, both of whom had extended solos that showed they were they were Béla and Marcus' equals, at least. Béla, for his part, seemed tickled just to be on stage with these guys: during a technical break, he told us about growing up listening to his uncle's jazz piano albums and how wowed he was by them. He also heard Chick Corea early on as a student, and set his mind to one day playing that music, improbable as it might have seemed then.

Towards the end of their two-hour set, Marcus quoted John Coltrane, who once said: "When I feel good energy coming from the audience, I feel like I have a fifth member of my quartet." With a good-time vibe like this, I'm happy to sit in any time. 

Bela Fleck and Marcus Roberts, Caramoor Jazz Festival, 8/4/12
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