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Album Review: Béla Fleck and the Marcus Roberts Trio - Across the Imaginary Divide

It’s rare to hear banjo in a straight-ahead jazz setting these days, which makes the new collaboration between banjoist Béla Fleck and jazz masters the Marcus Roberts Trio all the more interesting.  What started as an impromptu jam session at the Savannah Music Festival in 2009 has turned into an hour long album entitled Across The Imaginary Divide, released June 10 on Rounder Records. 

Always one to follow the muse wherever if may take him, Fleck is no stranger to collaboration, although this is his first official foray into traditional jazz.  One might expect the result to be funky covers of bluegrass tunes and hillbilly takes on jazz standards.  However, the result is more than just bluegrass-ragtime fusion, but a best of both worlds blending of elements that feels fresh yet familiar, contemporary yet old fashioned.

Fleck not only manages to fit within the Marcus Roberts Trio’s style, but seamlessly functions as a fourth member; an equal partner in the musical communication.  Rather than virtuoso + trio, this is a quartet where the dual lead instruments of banjo and piano strike a balance between distinction and cohesion, exchanging solos and melodic ideas with the fluid support of Rodney Jordan on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums.

The music for the album was mostly written independently – half by Roberts and half by Fleck.  Each brought in a set of tunes to the practice sessions with the other in mind.  Those individual pieces quickly came together as four piece ensemble arrangements.  It’s obvious now from listening to the finished product that they were all on the same page, as it's impossible to distinguish who wrote what just from listening. 

Fleck will be doing a series of dates with Marcus Roberts Trio off and on now through November.  The nearest they’ll get to Richmond is the Carolina Theater in Durham on November 8th.