The 24-year-old kid who joined Wynton Marsalis' band for J Mood in 1985 is now middle-aged, a professor of music at Florida State, a jazz mentor and the leader of a trio that's remained steady for 14 years.
Some say that, under Marsalis' influence, Roberts simply perpetuates older jazz without reference to the fusion, experimental and world sounds of the last 30 years of jazz. Too traditional, in other words.
But Roberts has a response ready. "We study our tradition in order to expand it," he says. "And I don't want to brag, but nobody plays the way we play." As for charges of excessive traditionalism, "I tend to leave that to the critics," he says. "The most important thing to me is that we expand the world of jazz, expand our audiences and don't push them away from it."
And there's still a lot to explore within the tradition. "One of the big problems with jazz is that we don't really understand what Louis Armstrong did," Roberts says. "We sort of do, but nobody's been able to write those rhythms down exactly, at least as far as the notation of Western music goes."
Over the past 15 years, Roberts has recorded albums devoted to the music of George Gershwin, Scott Joplin, Cole Porter, Thelonius Monk and Duke Ellington. As another example of uncharted traditional territory, Roberts says, "Take Monk -- I've had a great passionate love for his music all my life. But I don't understand the genius of that man. There's only a small part of what he did that I can tie into."
With his trio, Roberts explores the tradition's mysteries with two musicians "who can do both rhythm and groove": Roland Guerin does more than just walk a bass line, and on drums, Jason Marsalis does a lot more than just keep time.
"They know how to be spontaneous," Roberts says of his bandmates. "They can go from Latin jazz with a syncopated beat to slow New Orleans things." The important thing, Roberts jokes, is that "It's not just cocktail-lounge piano with really slow bass and drums -- I can't stand that stuff."
At the Fox on Saturday night, they'll perform a program called "Rhythm and Romance" that will include "Blue Skies," some early Ellington, and "East of the Sun and West of the Moon." "We'll play the 'Jitterbug Waltz,' some Gershwin, some music that's kind of like funk, and some original music," Roberts says, presenting "a contrast between really pretty music and music with lots of syncopation." Some of the numbers will present an overlap -- the trio will play "What Is This Thing Called Love?" but, as Roberts notes, "our version is in 9/8 time, and with time for a drum solo in the middle."
Both Guerin and Marsalis earned their places in the trio by filling in flawlessly (and on short notice) for Gershwin recording sessions that Roberts was guiding. Marsalis -- son of Ellis, youngest brother of Wynton and Branford -- is 31 now, but he's been playing with Roberts since he was 17.
And 14 years of playing together has only reinforced the trio's belief that jazz -- open, eclectic, adaptable -- is an American art form.
Roberts explains: While they're playing, he says, "The members of the group have to simultaneously make up something that's knowable -- you can follow it -- and still do the solo. They're having to play and listen at same time as they make up their parts."
Jazz musicians will always want to display what they can do, but they "have to know how to responsibly pursue those objectives within the idea of the group. It teaches you how to cooperate."
In that way, Roberts says, "Jazz is democratic. Any art form that survives that long, it can only be because there's a need for it. And as long as we live in a democratic society that celebrates individual achievement, jazz will always be important."
The Marcus Roberts Trio performs "Rhythm and Romance" at the Fox on Saturday, Oct. 18, at 8 pm. Tickets: $17-$32. Visit www.foxtheaterspokane.com or call 624-1200.