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Review: Jazz trio and banjo, led by Bela Fleck, lives up to expectations

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Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012, 11:06 p.m.

Bela Fleck and Marcus Roberts say their musical understanding is constantly growing, and that development was clearly present Saturday evening.

From the brisk development of "Some Roads Lead Home" to the driving, up-tempo "Petunia" that closed the set, banjoist Fleck and pianist Roberts showed their blend of a jazz trio and banjo is more than an idle curiosity.

Fleck and the Roberts trio performed two sets at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild on the North Side and showed great development from the time their album "Across the Imaginary Divide " was released in the early summer. Indeed, a second visit might be in order.

While the album proved this combination could work without any hitches, their play Saturday night showed it could find a place in the jazz repertoire. Just as a trio can fit well with a violin, harmonica or even mandolin, a banjo-based trio can work.

Of course, it doesn't hurt when the banjoist is as talented as Fleck.

He can rip through traditional-sounding banjo lines, as he did on "Petunia," but also add background riffing of the type a guitarist might add. On "One Good Truth," as bassist Rodney Jordan explored his solo,. Fleck roamed around him, offering the kind of support a good jazz person would provide.

The only weak spot of the banjo-jazz combination is the lack of dynamics in the banjo. It simply can't get loud, so its ability to offer a forceful statement is limited.

The most convincing stretch of the concert was when the group rolled into a gospel-based "Prickley Pear" behind Jordan's low-down bass opening. That tune rolled through a nouveau-church-like setting, even using some call-and-response from Fleck and Marcus before going into what seemed to be another solo from Jordan.

But that solo actually was a lead into the pleasant, mid-tempo "I'm Gonna Tell You This Story One More Time." It was the kind of clever combination of tunes jazz groups with more history that this one use.

The set was more than Fleck and Roberts. Both Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis got plenty of places to solo, giving them an almost equal role with the two stars.

But those two players grabbed the most attention, naturally. The banjoist showed his unworldly skills steadily and Marcus demonstrated broad talents on piano. His solos were complex, but never stressed the listeners too much. For instance, in his solo on "Let Me Show You What To," he roamed through curiously changing phrasing that seemed to have erratic rhythm. Yet, it never changed tempo, so it didn't get too odd to handle.

This concert lived up to its potential, taking a step above meeting expectations.

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